The Ides of March

How can a movie this good prove to be so emotionally disappointing?

Ides of MarchMaybe the fault lies with me. I entered the theater not so much wanting to be inspired by George Clooney’s Ides of March as expecting to be. Clearly, I knew from decades of experience at the cinema that it is horribly unfair to set any movie on such a high pedestal, as you are almost always destined for disappointment in the end. It was unfair of me, I knew it was unfair of me, and yet try as I might I couldn’t suppress the expectation of seeing something profound.

Regardless, though there is clearly a lot to like about Ides of March, it is ultimately a film whose sum does not measure up to its many tantalizing parts.  While it flirts with greatness during the first half of the film, it devolves into an emotional quagmire that is both unsettling and terribly unsatisfying.

Clooney plays Mike Morris, a Democratic governor from Pennsylvania who is running for President. In many ways he resembles a reincarnated Bobby Kennedy when the latter was conducting his brief presidential campaign in 1968. Just as Kennedy had the courage to confront the debacle of the Viet Nam War head on, telling Americans what they needed to hear as opposed to what they wanted to hear, Clooney’s Governor Morris similarly tackles burning issues with refreshing candor and good humor.

As you watch Clooney the actor connect the dots between our country’s addiction to oil and our military adventurism in Muslim countries around the world, you can’t help but wish that Clooney was actually running for President. After all, if Reagan could do it, why not an intelligent, charismatic man like Clooney? Simply stated, it was glorious to watch a politician, even a fake one on the screen, reject appeals to blindly follow a rigid political ideology and simply concentrate on what is best for the American people.

Clooney is, as you would expect, marvelous in those moments as a courageous politician who will not sacrifice his fundamental dedication to the American people for cheap political gain. In one of many refreshing scenes in Ides of March, you see him refuse to pander on religious issues, stating in words to the effect that it didn’t matter to him if you were a Christian, Jew or Muslim, as the basis of his religion was the United States Constitution. For a brief moment I could feel myself transported back in time where I dared again to imagine what America could have become had Sirhan Sirhan’s bullet missed RFK in June of 1968.

However, it was at this critical juncture where the strength of Ides of March, namely having a candidate that all Americans could truly believe in, was gradually overwhelmed by its disappointing weaknesses. Tragically, it became a story that reaffirms the cynicism that most Americans have about our government. Snow White was revealed as a cheap whore, and Ides of March basically stood for little more than the proposition that no candidate can outrun his or her inevitable flaws.

What is so unfortunate is that the film contains some brilliant performances. Though Mr. Clooney is called upon to do little more than look handsome, charming and charismatic, or in other words actually play himself, Ryan Gosling and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are riveting as the two principal managers of the Governor’s run for the presidency. Mr. Hoffman is pitch perfect as Paul Zara, the veteran political consultant who values nothing higher than loyalty and honesty.

As an aside, is there really a more accomplished actor working today than Mr. Hoffman? A quick trip down memory lane brings us his Oscar winning performance as Truman Capote in Capote (2005); his darkly humorous role as Laura Linney’s estranged brother as they were reluctantly brought together to deal with their incapacitated father in the wonderful The Savages (2007); his brilliant performance as the satirical Gust Avrakotos in the wildly entertaining Charlie Wilson’s War (2007); not to mention his role as the baseball manager Art Howe in this year’s Moneyball. What a gifted actor.

Mr. Gosling matches Hoffman step for step as his young, brilliant associate who is working for the Governor solely because he truly believes that this is the one politician in America today who can really make a meaningful difference. When Gosling’s Stephen Myers’ faith in the Governor is ultimately crushed, you can’t help but feel the same way as you sit in the theater. Are we really doomed, as Ides of March suggests, that we Americans can expect nothing more than assholes and cynical manipulators to occupy the seats of power in Washington?

While Marisa Tomei and the always reliable Paul Giammati contribute mightily to the dark sinking tone of Ides of March, her as a New York Times reporter and he as an ethically challenged political operative managing the campaign of Governor Morris’ opponent in the ongoing Democratic presidential primary, it is Evan Rachel Ward who must be singled out for her compelling performance as a young intern working on the Governor’s campaign. She is intelligent, beautiful and seductive, and it ultimately leads Gosling into an ethical sewer that changes him and the Governor forever. Ms. Ward is as good here as she was playing Mickey Rourke’s estranged lesbian daughter in the acclaimed The Wrestler (2008), and she is an actress of growing significance.

Look, I don’t mean to sound like some hopeless idealist lost in the desert, but there is something fundamentally wrong with American politics today. What we see unfold in Ides of March serves as a metaphor as to how the political debate in our country is being manipulated to protect the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.

How else do you explain the continual attack on unions and public employees where they are called upon to sacrifice some of their “generous” benefits, while calls for the wealthy to make similar sacrifices are dismissed as “class warfare”? Fifty million Americans are without health care, yet one of our national parties calls for the repeal of the Health Reform Act that would result in all Americans being covered. Oil companies and other major corporations are awash in record profits and record tax breaks, yet the clarion call is to give them more of both. Social Security and Medicare, two extraordinarily popular and successful programs, are attacked as being little more than “Ponzi schemes”.

It is against this backdrop that Ides of March temporarily gave us a movie to believe in again. It was as if Governor Morris morphed into Jimmy Stewart’s Senator Smith in Frank Capra’s classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Both were fighting tenaciously for the little guy, and they refused to see things through some artificial ideological prism.

Unfortunately, the failure of Ides of March, and it is a failure, is as dramatic as if Mr. Smith had succumbed to the backroom corrupt arm twisting of Claude Rains’ senior Senator Joseph Harrison Paine and abandoned his noble quest. If that had happened, you wouldn’t have cared if Mr. Smith had gone to Washington, and I dare say you won’t be overly concerned whether Governor Morris makes it there either.