It's common knowledge that the game of politics is as dirty as a sewer. In the current climate of economic strife and uncertainty, you'd be excused if you felt even angrier than usual upon hearing about the backroom wheeling and dealing that occurs between those in charge of creating, executing and tweaking the laws that govern us. The Ides of March is a reflection of that anger. There isn't anything new to the film's comments about political corruption. We know that this sort of thing happens. The film is more of a reminder than a piece of insight. Films like that can still be effective as long as they're compelling and entertaining, which can be said for most of the film. The first half is a brisk, brilliantly accurate portrayal of the dynamics of life on the Hill - as someone who spent a college semester working at a congressional office in D.C., I can tell you that all the details are captured perfectly. The second half of the film, while equally as entertaining as the first, consists more of contrived, trashy drama - it's never boring, but it does make the film lose points in the respectability department, considering that this is supposed to be a serious political film, rather than a potboiler.
All you need to know about the plot is that Mike Morris (George Clooney) is running in the Democratic primary for U.S. president, and that the following guys (in order of importance) are the ones in charge of handling his campaign: Paul (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Stephen (Ryan Gosling) and Ben (Max Minghella). But that order of importance in which I listed them may or may not stay that way throughout the rest of the film, as The Ides of March is very much interested in capturing the jockeying for positions that characterizes the political arena. The story focuses mainly on Stephen, who's young and obviously very intelligent, perhaps good enough to run for office on his own some day. Things get complicated once his relationship with intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) goes beyond the professional realm, and once Stephen is approached by the opponent's campaign manager, Tom (Paul Giamatti), who apparently thinks that it'd be a great idea if Stephen jumped ship and joined them. A lot of temptations, some of which may even be practical and beneficial. What to do?
The dynamics of Washington office life are portrayed with spot-on accuracy here, particularly in the sense of who's assigned to do what, who interacts with whom, who receives orders from whom, who is ignored by whom, etc. The fact that these details are captured so perfectly yet the film never loses its way as far as providing entertainment to those who either don't care or don't know much about the inner workings of the political realm is a great credit to the film. The fact that The Ides of March was released more than a year before the U.S. election is also a good sign that this film isn't at all meant to be an influential statement or commentary, but rather, that it just wants to entertain and perhaps inflame a bit as well. It's too bad that, in the final act, it all devolves into entertainment of the shameless variety, which will literally make it impossible for me to ever consider The Ides of March a serious political film, as much as that may be the intention. It wouldn't be far-fetched to at least say "bordering on ludicrous" when describing the stream of betrayals and last-minute decisions and changes that take place as the film starts tying everything up.
If that were it, I think I'd still be a little bit more generous to the film, but the problem is that there's something else - something truly unforgivable - that happens during one of the film's most pivotal scenes in the climax. I'll give you an idea without spoiling it for you, because it's only right that you're as outraged as I was when I experienced it. The film wants to point out the irony in terms of how there are certain acts that political leaders have been cruficied for, whereas there are other (clearly more heinous) acts, for which other political leaders haven't been held accountable. Yes, the insight is great. The film is absolutely correct. But holy fuck, it doesn't even try to be subtle in its delivery of that point. It doesn't even make the slightest of attempts at concealing its evident references to Clinton and Bush. When I heard that line, I was flabbergasted by how it was even possible that no one read the script and thought it stuck out like a sore thumb in terms of how obvious it's making its point. The fact that the line is delivered by an actor of the caliber of Ryan Gosling simply makes it even more off-putting. I've said this a million times in other reviews, but I have no problem repeating it: the fact that I agree with what a film has to say is of no importance. It's all about HOW it says what it says. If I agree with a film's point, but it delivers said point to us as if we were 5-year-olds who need everything spoon-fed to us, then the point is absolutely worthless. And that's because, when you try super hard to jam a point down someone's throat, it's never effective, because you lose any sense of credibility. I'm sorry to say it, but as much as I recognize The Ides of March for being an engrossing way to spend 2 hours in a movie theater, it's a film that had the potential to be much more than that, and it isn't.
Give credit to George Clooney for playing someone who's closer to a villain than a hero. As was the case with Good Night and Good Luck, though, it was obvious that he preferred to have a more supporting role here, in order to give himself more time to dedicate to his directing duties. The true lead of the film is Ryan Gosling, who's predictably very good at displaying all the swagger, stress and emotionally conflicted persona that would characterize a young talent on the Hill who may still have a thing or two to learn about the truly filthy nature of all the double-crossing that takes place in that world. That said, he has no business getting an Oscar nomination for this performance, and if that's indeed what happens, it'll be obvious as hell that the Academy simply chose to nominate him for the "safer" movie, despite the fact that his hypnotic performance in Drive is on an entirely different level. Evan Rachel Wood, whose performances I usually absolutely adore, is unfortunately stuck playing the character who's saddled with the most contrivances and hard-to-believe emotional shifts in the final act. The true standouts in The Ides of March are the serpentine Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, both of whom are magnificent at spewing the quick-witted bile that comes from men who've been on the Hill long enough to know all the tricks and to know that you can go up as easily as you can go down. Hoffman and Giamatti are perfect at playing the "I screwed you over, but it's obviously nothing personal" part. Oh, and someone apparently watched The Social Network and liked Max Minghella's rendition of a preppy douchebag well enough to ask him to show up on the set of The Ides of March and play the same character, and even wear the same suit. I guess there's no need to fix what isn't broken.
The Ides of March doesn't contain any new insight on politics or on the campaign process, but then again, one may argue that there isn't much more to say about it. It's all about bullshit and connections. For that reason, the film doesn't even offer up solutions on how to deal with political corruption: it just reminds you that it exists, and that you need to deal with it, and if you're one of those who simply doesn't care about the subject, that's perfectly fine (since you're under no obligation to like it), but don't forget that these people are severely affecting your life, and that some day, when something actually happens to you, you really might care. The film still had the potential to achieve greatness thanks to its authentic portrayal of the dynamics on the Hill and to its entertainment value, but in its latter half, it degrades itself too much for me to consider it anything more than a time-passing diversion.