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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Co-Pick of the Week: New. The Ides of March


Despite my low-to-moderate rating of The Ides Of March, I still believe it’s a movie that should be seen by all movie types. Which is why it’s a co-pick.
The Ides of March (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: George Clooney, 2011 (Sony Pictures)
Why in Hell did George Clooney make a movie like The Ides of March now? That question kept needling me as I tried to enjoy this suave but dispiriting drama about a Democratic presidential primary gone rotten. But I could never really  figure it out.
You tell me. Why would a famous Hollywood liberal — when we’re in the midst of all-out dirty-as-hell political warfare between big corporation right wing Republicans and share-the-wealth left-wing Democrats on Capitol Hill — give us a show about presidential electoral politics where almost all the Democrats are corrupt or flawed, and  where the whole movie is built around the unsentimental education of the one idealistic young liberal character (Ryan Gosling as Stephen Myers, press secretary for a seeming shining knight liberal candidate Mike Morris, played by Clooney), into how to be a political scumbag, backstab and circumvent the law — and where all the Republicans are offstage, though at one point they’re briefly described as better at being better, tougher scumbags than the Democrats.
Is it the truth? Maybe, partly. But it’s not much fun, or even instructive, to watch a movie story like that, especially now, unless it’s totally truthful, funny or scary. And The Ides of March isn’t any of them.

Shot like a neo-noir, dropped into pools of ink-black shadow by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, it’s a movie that strives hard to be something like a classic social message drama by Rod Serling, Reginald Rose or Gore Vidal, or, to choose later examples, Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet. But its aspiration are like the political campaign described here: flawed by cynicism, hamstrung by formula.

It starts well. Clooney’s Mike Morris is a Democratic Pennsylvania governor running for President, a dreamboat liberal candidate up against some unnamed, undescribed Republican. He has a more centrist opponent, Senator Pullman (Mike Mantell), of Arkansas yet, plus another opponent dropping out, Jeffrey Wright as North Carolina Senator Thompson. Thompson has some votes and pledges he might trade for a cabinet post, and both Morris and Pullman are jockeying for them.
Morris also has a savvy, scarred campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a rising young star in press secretary Myers. Myers, played by Gosling with his usual held-back inwardess and subtlety,  worships and serves Morris in the way Ted Sorenson might have adulated John Kennedy — when suddenly his world falls apart. Pullman’s campaign head, sly Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), offers him a job. Zara finds out and fires him, but not before Myers gets seduced by an intern, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), who’s also the daughter of the Democratic Party chairman, and who has a red-hot secret that will blow the whole campaign open.
Does all that sound like something you might read in a supermarket tabloid? The Ides of March makes it classier than the tabloid would, but perhaps less credible — perhaps simply because it seems classier than its material.

It’s puzzling. If Clooney, an actor and filmmaker I usually enjoy and admire, wanted to make or score political points, he and his topflight cast and colleagues are maybe making the wrong points at the wrong time. And if he simply wanted to make a really good movie, however the political chips fell ( a laudable enough goal), he may have picked the wrong material. Beau Willimon, who wrote the play “Farragut North,” (the title comes from a Washington Metro stop), the source on which Ides of March is based, is an ex-aide to Democratic presidential candidate (and later party chairman) Howard Dean, and he has both an insider’s cynicism, and maybe an insider‘s tendency to overly inflate or deflate or deglamorize his subjects.

I haven’t read or seen “Farragut North,” which was adapted into The Ides of March by co-writers Willimon, Clooney and Grant Heslov, with Clooney directing, but the movie that somehow came out of it is so stuffed with wild melodrama, improbable coincidences, and unlikely plot twists that only the classiness of the cast and direction, and the relative literacy and sobriety of the whole enterprise, keeps it from tipping over into political camp — which might have been preferable.
I think Clooney’s timing may have been poor here. In the midst of a real-life Washington battle that pits an idealistic leftist, well-financed Democratic president (Barack Obama), against a hard-nosed, well-financed Republican congress trying to tear him apart, Democrat Clooney — and, I assume, a largely Democratic cast and production staff — come out with a show that portrays most of its Democratic characters as devious, amoral, or worse, and takes no real shots at Republicans except to treat them as the monsters offstage.
Michael Ritchie and star Robert Redford’s 1972 The Candidate — which bears a certain family resemblance to The Ides of March (and was also written by an ex-Democratic campaign staffer, Jeremy Larner) — is often cited as the exemplary movie about American political campaigns. But I prefer Franklin Schaffner and Vidal’s The Best Man (with liberal candidate Henry Fonda sabotaging his conservative opponent, Cliff Robertson, so a compromise candidate will win). The Best Man is about as melodramatic as Ides of March, but it’s better written and more enjoyable — largely because Fonda, whom the movie makes clear is the best man, does prevail, even if he doesn’t win.
The tabloid antics of Ides of March aren’t as plausible or as much fun. Bill Clinton (and his intern) and John Edwards (and his affair and betrayal) have to some degree blazed a real-life trail here. But this movie trumps them both — besides giving us a resolution so preposterous that, as some critics have already suggested, The Ides of March might only really work as satire, or dark farce.
Instead, The Ides of March treats Myers as totally serious and the most important character in the film, which would probably work better if Myers were more of an observer and less of a star (or rising star) participant. The movie offers us violent death, abortion, political corruption and double-crosses, and gives us an ending that doesn’t make much sense — all delivered by a cast so good, top to bottom to middle that they almost pull it off. (In addition to the others, Jennifer Ehle plays Morris‘s wife, Max Minghella plays another ambitious politico, and Marisa Tomei of The New York Times is one of the few visible reporters — a cynical one too, of course.) The Ides of March does, in the end, have something substantial to offer: not the script, nor its political perceptions — which are acid, but hardly new — but that brilliant cast, putting more conviction into these unlikely situations than you might have dreamed possible.
I would have been happier if Clooney and his fellow writers had performed some really radical surgery on Willimon’s play and turned all the Democrats into Republicans. I wouldn‘t have admired the movie any more as a movie maybe, but at least I would have enjoyed it — and actually, relatively little would have had to be changed in the script except for the candidates’ talking points. Clooney’s Morris is for the environment, for gay marriage, against war, and he refuses to profess any religion. (He says the U. S. Constitution is his sacred text.) But he could just as well have been for big oil, against planned parenthood, and for huge tax cuts and dismantling social security and Medicare, and an Evangelical deacon. (He could even have kept the last part of that Constitution line.)
Often The Ides of March seems to be taking place three or four years ago, before Obama was elected. (Clooney is said to have delayed the project when that election happened; maybe he should have put it on permanent hold.) And by the way, what is the point of the title? I don’t see any analogies here to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, from whence the Ides came. And, if there are any (Clooney as Caesar? Gosling as Marc Antony? Hoffman as Cassius?) they evaporate fast.
So does the movie. Part of the problem with The Ides of March, is not that it savages Democrats, but that it lets the Republicans off the hook — except at one point when they’re described as smarter and tougher than the Dems. (Meant partly as an insult, but does the audience take it that way?) I don’t know if I agree with that sentiment anyway — but the G. O. P. and its schemers and strategists and media planners are definitely smart enough not to release movies like The Ides of March, in presidential primary season, when the real-life political situation seems so radically different, so radically bad.
Extras: Commentary with George Clooney and producer Grant Heslov; Featurettes.

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