Stephen Myers may be the last idealist alive in American politics. As a media strategist for candidates, he can smell bull hockey before anyone else, yet prefers to not spread it around. Stephen's latest job is working to get a charismatic liberal elected U.S. president. He believes in the candidate and the cause. But sometimes idealism dies.
That's the theme of George Clooney's fourth directing effort, The Ides of March, taking its title from the calendar dates Julius Caesar was warned about, and when he was assassinated. There are Caesars throughout Clooney's movie, both people and purposes. Only one person actually dies, but plenty of ideals are slain with daggers of cynicism as the campaign process unfolds and scandal emerges.
Clooney plays the candidate, Gov. Mike Morris, who's in a close race with a knee-jerk centrist to win Ohio's presidential primary. Morris is a photogenic family man, an engaging speaker and, most importantly for Stephen (Ryan Gosling), someone who deeply cares about America. It's the man behind that image that Stephen gradually recognizes, and fears becoming.
The Ides of March is a bipartisan morality play based on Beau Willimon's stage play Farragut North. Anyone disagreeing with Clooney's politics in real life might wince during the first act and feel smug during the third. It's a bleaker film than Good Night, and Good Luck, which smoldered with optimism about standing up for principles deemed unpatriotic by demagogues. The Ides of March is interestingly disillusioned.
Gosling continues his recent streak of varied characters, after the romantic comedy Crazy Stupid Love and the terse thriller Drive. Stephen offers a role firmly between those extremes, a calculating con artist with a good heart, at first. The closer Gov. Morris gets to his party's nomination, the farther Stephen falls from his ideals. Not everything is his fault, or his choice.
The first temptation of Stephen occurs when a rival campaign manager (Paul Giamatti) urges him to bring his spin expertise to their side. Stephen firmly declines. He believes he's backing the right man for the job, and Gov. Morris' manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a longtime friend for whom loyalty is paramount. Discovering that Stephen even listened to the offer causes a rift between the two, setting up a revenge motive.
There's also a seductive campaign intern named Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) making her intentions for Stephen quite clear. Molly is deeper into the campaign than making coffee and sending out flyers, leading to that third act when ethics crumble. Meanwhile, an investigative reporter (Marisa Tomei) seeks a story, and a U.S. senator (Jeffrey Wright) seeks a deal.
Each scene in The Ides of March has an air of indignation about the sorry state of politics. As a director, Clooney makes his most straightforward movie yet, although it's static at times due to the stage origins of Willimon's material. It's an actor's showcase — Gosling and Hoffman fare best — shaking their heads at the idea that someone like Stephen can be corrupted. Subtle yet supple, and more evidence that Clooney isn't just another pretty face.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.