Sunday, October 9, 2011
As such, The Ides of March embodies the same neutered centrism we see in our current president. Clooney plays his presidential candidate as the Obama of 2008 but with even more broad appeal. He's got military experience, leadership experience, and all the talking points that made Obama a symbol of change. But in breaking the clay feet of this alloyed idol, Clooney tries so hard to blame the idea of politics in general, of that commonly accepted evil, that he fatally undermines any possible belief the audience could have in the idealistic innocence of its politics-savvy protagonist.
That politico would be Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), a 30-year-old whose campaign experience and acumen gives him the chops of a politician twice his age. He is ruthless, myopically focused on humans as numbers (he throws the upcoming generation under the bus since they can't vote), and arrogant, yet we're made to believe he only throws his calculating support behind causes in which he believes. But however thin that premise is, one cannot blame him for buying into Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney). A hardcore, passionate liberal who also balanced his state's budget and served honorably in the military, Morris can steamroll the Republicans with ease, especially as they have no remotely viable candidate (sound familiar as we head into 2012?). Unfortunately, he has to get through the Democratic primary first, and internal politics prove far trickier and harder than the big fight.
In this aspect, The Ides of March puts forward an intelligent and engaging view of the political process, in which infighting brings out the most petty and backstabbing actions. Stephen's boss, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has spent so much time in these trenches that he's grown completely paranoid, not of Republican spies but defections between Democratic sects. He has good reason to worry when the rival campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), comes by looking to steal away Stephen and his genius. Beau Willimon wrote the original play about his experiences working the Howard Dean campaign in 2004, but the fever pitch of the contest between Morris and Pullman more readily recalls the downright vicious fight for the Democratic nomination in 2008. And even though Obama's victory over McCain made history, his struggle to nab the nomination over Hillary Clinton made for far more gripping politics.
But the film barely even starts to get into this side of the game before it introduces a comely young intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood). With a sultry, beckoning haircut she must have skipped out on five hours of canvassing to get, Molly doesn't even fully walk into frame before you know exactly where this story is going. Wood plays Molly (who is also the daughter of the DNC chairmen, because why not) as a teenage minx, so comically seductive that Stephen's lapse in judgment is simply ridiculous. Then comes the expected revelation of Molly's connection to the main plot, and Wood turns the dial from "femme fatale" to "damsel" as Gosling moves to clean up everyone's mess, including his own.
At this point, the film breaks into three unified but distinct narratives: the issue of Molly's "problem," Morris' campaign, and Stephen's attempts to handle not just those but the ire of Paul for daring to meet with Duffy. The problem is that Clooney splits his time ineffectively, and he assumes that the Molly story and how it relates to the other characters is so stunning and dark that it exudes an atmosphere of clandestine cover-ups and intrigue. It doesn't, and Clooney's pleasing classical style only further hinders the film by using shadows in such a way as to be pretty, not eerie.
For a film about the seedy side of politics, The Ides of March lacks the true level of disgust needed to articulate its own points. Clooney and Gosling do their best to communicate a knowledge—already gained or slowly dawning—of the darkest depths to which politicians and the process as a whole can go. But neither feels it. These are not people living in the immediate aftermath of Nixon, capable of producing works so dark that even a triumphant, inspiring movie like All the President's Men feels borderline nihilistic. Clooney's just working off the frustration of partisan gridlock and internal squabbling. He's made a film about the incurable poison of politics when every frame clearly communicates that he thinks this all could work if people could just get their crap together. Then again, no wonder he thinks that when the film omits the true pitfalls of politics; how can anyone expect to talk about how twisted the election process is when money doesn't get mentioned once?
In their final exchange, Duffy warns Stephen to get out of politics before it jades him, a pointed bit of advice from someone who looks and sounds like Paul Giamatti. The film, however, suffers precisely because it stops before becoming completely cynical, stopping at the tipping point that turns an ambiguous final judgment by Stephen into a final half-measure that speaks more to the movie's cowardice than an embodiment of full-on political distrust. This kind of movie just isn't in Clooney's blood; when he stages a political fight, he needs a side to lionize as he had for Good Night, and Good Luck. The Ides of March needed a director on Tom Duffy's wavelength, not Stephen Myers'.