For all the accusations of limousine liberalism and jokes about his palatial estate in Italy, you'd be hard pressed to find a politically minded artist who puts his money where his ideas are and turns it into such riveting product as George Clooney. Particularly not in Hollywood.
Clooney's new directorial effort, The Ides of March, in which he also takes a showcase supporting role, is an ideological drama for our times. Adapted by Clooney and his long-time collaborator Grant Heslov, working with Beau Willimon, the playwright behind the original material (Farragut North), The Ides of March perfectly captures the current political zeitgeist. It is a movie of our age, one that weighs the struggle of belief against a broken system and examines how both are affected by the vagaries of human foibles. That it manages to do so in such a scintillating fashion is an unparalleled miracle.
Clooney plays Mike Morris, a progressive Democratic governor battling it out in the Presidential primaries. Morris is neck and neck with his sole rival, a sitting senator whose campaign peddles the usual business; Morris, on the other hand, intends to show himself as the true believer. His policies are rife with the kind of hope and change--as well as the iconic imagery--associated with Barack Obama. I suppose it says something about Clooney's opinion of the President's commitment to true change that his fictional politician moves his policies so much further ahead. Not since Martin Sheen left The West Wing have I wanted to see a fake President become real so badly.
Also hoping to see Morris in the Oval Office are his dueling campaign managers: the gruffly old-school Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the new-media young hoper Stephen (Ryan Gosling). Stephen buys into Morris' mission (he says the Kool-Aid tastes "delicious"), while Paul will do anything it takes to win. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with, but as the Ohio Primary approaches, the other candidate starts to gain some ground. In particular, things go wrong as soon as Stephen agrees to an ethically gray sitdown with the campaign manager for the other guy. Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) is as bitter and cynical as Paul. Indeed, the pair have duked it out many times. This time, Tom predicts that he will come out on top. Paul's trip, happening at that very moment, to woo the endorsement of a divisive senator (Jeffrey Wright) will fail, and Stephen should jump ship before it sinks.
It's that easy for an idealist to have his philosophy shaken. Stephen begins to doubt the true cause and its viability. A soothsayer in the guise of a reporter (Marisa Tomei) has already warned him that no politician is perfect and as much as Morris looks like a messiah, he will let Stephen down. But what if Stephen lets him down first? Or Paul? Or what if the whole thing is based on a lie to begin with? It's that kind of paranoia that fuels The Ides of March, and the movie details how each participant positions himself to get what he or she most wants. The Ides of March is a situational drama driven by a nervy plot but reliant on real character behavior. How they react to things matters. Their mistakes matter. Their politics matter.
Your politics, on the other hand, do not. Sure, The Ides of March is left-leaning, as are its characters, as is this critic, but it's not really about policy. Switch the parties around, change the stump speeches, and the central story would still stand. Neither conviction nor disappointment is partisan. Worrying about whether you agree or disagree with Mike Morris is basically missing the point. That said, the script for The Ides of March does deliver an incisive critique of the Democratic Party and their failure to address the chinks in their armor or do the difficult work to push their ideas across. Tom's way of doing things is said to be taken from the Republican handbook. As he says it, if the Dems want to win, they need to get down in the mud with the elephants; as the film is expressing it, however, everyone is already there, and whitewashing this truth only leads to disillusionment.
The Ides of March could have easily Gosling's show, his character does take the lead, but Clooney has built an ensemble instead. He has cast his actors to fit the character models they are portraying. Hoffman and Giamatti are the older, wiser, and wider veterans, and Gosling is the good-looking, charismatic new kid. The three of them trade acting chops like kung-fu masters. You won't see a more finely tuned performance machine this year. All the supporting roles are filled out with impressive talents. Tomei and Wright both sparkle in small moments, and Evan Rachel Wood provides an emotional aside that is essential to the story. She makes for a wholly believable companion for Gosling, as well as providing fitting temptation of another sort.
As a director, and even as an actor and producer, George Clooney has long been part of a creative school striving to get back to the heyday of 1970s pre-blockbuster cinema. These films are visually sophisticated, but are just as much about challenging ideas and murky personal issues as they are about ticket sales. Good storytelling rules the day. Thus, Clooney doesn't limit his A-level talent to the cast. Top to bottom, his crew hits every mark, from the chilly, observant photography of Phedon Papamichael (Walk the Line) through to post-production and the careful editing of Stephen Mirrone (Contagion) and the understated, often underused score of Alexandre Desplat (Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Tree of Life). There is not a hair out of place here. It is an immaculately constructed tragedy. Innocence is rarely lost with this much effervescence and calculation in real life, but then, that's why we go to the movies: to see the messes cleaned up.
With The Ides of March, George Clooney maintains an incredible winning streak, both in front of the camera and behind it. His string of challenging, important, and entertaining motion pictures is practically unmatched in today's multiplexes. As the United States trudges deeper and deeper into the mire of what is looking to be a dirty Presidential campaign, The Ides of March reminds us of what it's all for, how difficult it is to achieve, and how far from the mark the current climate has placed us. It would be nice if we could have a little more of the optimistic promise of the film's first act and not so much of the practical third in our real lives, but so it goes.