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‘The Ides of March’ a slick-but-gutless political fable

The Ides of March
Written by George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon
Directed by George Clooney
USA, 2011

Depite the rising tides of discontent among the politically disenfranchised in North America – and the growing number who can count themselves among those ranks – politically relevant entertainment is not exactly flourishing at the moment. At best, some working-man’s revenge comedies strain for timeliness through toothless class warfare (Horrible Bosses, the forthcoming Tower Heist) – beyond that, the realm of fictional narrative features has stayed mostly mum in a period of considerable turmoil and economic doomsaying. George Clooney’s fourth feature as a director, The Ides of March, doubtless means well and should feel like a breath of fresh air given the frustratingly apolitical pop-culture climate, but it’s such a weak-kneed affair that the would-be import barely registers.

Derived from Beau Willimon’s off-Broadway play Farragut North, Ides stars Ryan Gosling (whose mannerisms here are startlingly Sean Penn-like) as Stephen Myers, assistant campaign head for the fledgling presidential campaign of a pie-sky Democrat, Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney). The Ohio contest looms large, with Morris’s rival too close behind in the polling for comfort, not to mention worries that Republicans will punch the other ticket in the hopes of pushing forward a more beatable Dem candidate. Myers’s direct superior, Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is relying heavily on the support (and heavy delegate load) of a dodgy-but-influential senator (Jeffrey Wright), whose demand is simple, but a deal-breaker for Morris: an endorsement in exchange for the position of Secretary of State if elected. Despite Morris’s insistence on running as clean a capaign as possible, the ambitious Myers tempts fate by agreeing to meet with Morris’s opponent’s Machiavellian campaign strategist (Paul Giamatti), which kickstarts a deceptively simple chain of events that totally re-orients the race.

As far as exposés of corrupt campaign machinations go, Ides is a little on the gutless side, despite Willimon’s real-life behind-the-scenes experience (having worked on Howard Dean’s doomed campaign for the Democratic nomination back in 2004). Morris himself feels a bit like an amalgam of Dean, John Edwards, and Obama (whose Fairey campaign posters are mimicked here) – Dems with a tendency towards proudly left-leaning rhetoric who, for one reason or another, didn’t pan out to be the saviours they might have initially appeared. What’s disappointing about Ides is that for all of its seen-it-all rhetoric (including reporter Marissa Tomei’s early-film line about how all pols ultimately turn out to be merely human), it’s entirely content to go over well-trod ethical ground. Myers undergoes a fairly pat transition from doe-eyed political optimist to hardened opportunist in a manner that doesn’t offer any particularly cutting insights for anyone even remotely familiar with recent US electoral history, or indeed who’s spent any time scrutinizing electoral politics almost anywhere.

As with Good Night and Good Luck, Clooney’s relative modesty is his greatest strength; at a tidy 100 minutes, Ides is nothing if not efficient, even excluding certain key plot moments in order to dial down any potential histrionics on the part of its across-the-board solid cast (or, in one notable case, keeping a climactic exchange tastefully cloaked within a campaign vehicle). That same modesty, however, works to keep Ides firmly in the realm of the competent and far from the transcendent; Clooney has often expressed great admiration for Sidney Lumet’s Network, a film that, for whatever its flaws, possesses potent and aggressively wrought notions about power, corporatism, and exploitation that still resonate. By contrast, for all of its tasteful elisions and carefully measured performances, it’s unlikely Ides and its familiar ethical quandries will trouble anyone past Christmas, let alone by the time the titular day of reckoning next comes around.

Simon Howell