The Ides of March
Produced by Smoke House
Directed by George Clooney
Written by Grant Heslov, George Clooney, and Beau Willimon
from Willimon’s play, Farragut North
Distributed by Columbia Pictures


George Clooney’s film The Ides of March is a behind-the-scenes look at a presidential primary race in contemporary Ohio.  The behavior of the candidates and their rabid retinues make American politics look as sporting as feeding time at the piranha pool.  These patriots comprise a congress of insatiable appetites circling the presidency, snapping at the promise of power, money, and indefatigable whoopee.

Clooney and his scenarist, Grant Hes­lov, worked with Beau Willimon to adapt his 2008 play Farragut North, a title borrowed from the Washington, D.C., subway station at which you’d disembark should you want to walk K Street’s lobbyist row.  Willimon got to know the street well while serving as an aide in Howard Dean’s ill-starred 2004 presidential campaign.  I haven’t seen the play, but if the film’s adaptation is as faithful as I’m informed, then Willimon seems to have come away from his time on the hustings bitterly convinced that our nation’s politics are inherently corrupt and corrupting.  This is hardly news, but it can’t be repeated too often.  There’s always the hope that we’ll get the message and one day revert to what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they talked of representative government as a temporary public service.  Citizen amateurs were to serve their country as occasion called and then return to their personal concerns at home.  The authors of the Constitution didn’t envision today’s professional political class pursuing lifelong careers in their respective state capitols or in that hilarious party running permanently, not to mention gaudily, in Washington, D.C.

It’s surprising that the conventionally liberal Clooney would have taken interest in Willimon’s play, since it features malefactors who are exclusively Democrats.  The Republicans are mentioned only once, so far as I could tell.  That’s when seasoned campaign manager Paul Zara (belly-bloated Philip Seymour Hoffman) laments that his latest client, the magnetic-charismatic-gravitas-laden charmer Mike Morris (Clooney), the honorable governor of Pennsylvania and aspiring contender for the White House, has refused to make a deal with the illustrious sidewinding Senator Thompson of North Carolina.  The senator has informed Zara that he might be willing to release his 300-odd delegates to Morris should the governor agree to make him secretary of state upon winning the presidency.  But the usually unflappable Morris vehemently refuses.  Why?  It’s a matter of principle.  Which principle we never learn, unless Morris’s summary judgment of Thompson can be considered one: “He’s a shit.”

Zara bemoans such a want of political acumen. “I’ve seen too many Democrats lose,” he grouses, “because they wouldn’t get down in the mud with the elephants.”  I confess I laughed immoderately at this to the annoyance of those in the audience with me who didn’t get the joke.  Perhaps they hadn’t read Joe Nocera’s New York Times column earlier that day.  Nocera neatly recounted the Democrats’ orchestrated demolition of Robert Bork’s 1987 nomination to the Supreme Court on the wholly specious grounds that he was an extreme right-wing ideologue and a racist to boot.  Nocera brought up Bork’s ordeal to make a point.  He wanted his readers to know that, despite recent agonizing among liberal pundits, Republicans haven’t cornered the market in mud.  For a more recent example, there’s our sainted President Obama who, during the 2008 campaign, was given to not-so-subtle attacks on John McCain’s geezerhood.  Remember the ads he authorized, the ones sneering that McCain didn’t know how to use e-mail or conduct Google searches?  When it comes to mud, those donkeys can kick it around with the best of the tuskers.

Hoffman’s Zara is a decent man who in the welter of his perennial campaigning has grown deaf to the import of his own words and deeds.  He’s come to confuse his cynicism with honor—a confusion that’s contagious, as it turns out.  Even as his team of eager political aides and interns casually scheme, lie, and betray, they do so half believing in their honor, honesty, and loyalty.  This is not at all surprising.  Do deceivers think themselves deceitful, betrayers disloyal, villains villainous?  Perhaps a few, but such scrupulous souls never make it in politics, a profession that requires a talent for bottomless rationalization and an inexhaustible supply of shamelessness.

Clooney plays Morris with his patented nonchalance.  He’s initially so engaging that you naturally think he’s the film’s center.  But, no, he turns out to be the vacuous vortex around which the narrative circles.  In Willimon’s play, Morris never makes an appearance at all, which makes sense.  Willimon intended his absence to function as a blank slate upon which others project their hopes and wishes.  The film’s focus is the 30-year-old Stephen Meyers (a quietly pensive Ryan Gosling), Morris’s wunderkind press secretary and second in command to Zara.  Stephen’s a curious mixture of idealism and cynicism.  He talks glowingly of Morris’s enlightened plan to institute a mandatory two-year national service for high-school graduates in exchange for college tuition afterward.  Then, political calculation kicking in, he notes with a smirk that parents will be attracted to the plan.  And the directly affected young people called to service?  No problem.  Most will be too young to vote against Morris.

Stephen’s penchant for cold political calculus has won him a reputation for being smarter than most others in his game.  Yet his eyes glisten when he says that Morris is the only candidate who “can make a difference.”  Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei, keeping her shirt on for a change), the driven New York Times reporter, has her doubts.  She mockingly asks Stephen, “Have you drunk the Kool-Aid?”

“Yes,” he answers, adding with a smile that “it was delicious.”  But Ida warns him that the governor, like any other politician, will “let you down.”  Stephen, of course, ignores her.  Morris is too admirably committed to the same principles that Stephen is—one of which is his fearless godlessness, always a sure winner in American politics.  Whenever asked about his faith, Morris intones his tag line: “I am neither a Christian, nor an atheist; I’m not Jewish or Muslim . . . my religion is written on a piece of parchment called the Constitution.”  Stephen goes wobbly every time he hears it.  What’s more, Morris’s foreign policy is impeccable.  He intends to deal with terrorism by doing away with our need for Middle Eastern oil.  How?  Simple: By the end of his administration there will be no new car built with an internal-combustion engine.  With a single edict, he’ll bring peace to the world and clean air to the environment.  And the way he says this!  With his warm, gravelly, unforced Clooney voice and easy half-slouch at the podium, he’s irresistibly convincing.  With these signals in place, you pretty well know where things are going.  Still, there are surprises ahead, some of them quite unsettling.

The cardinal surprise is provided by Molly Stearns (the lovely Evan Rachel Wood, also keeping her shirt on, if just barely).  She’s an intern, courtesy of her father, Ohio’s Democratic Party chairman.  Molly is bright, ambitious, and blunt.  Within an hour or two of her first conversation with Stephen, her boss, she informs him she has designs on him.  This may not shock you, but her way of putting it is a tad disturbing.  “I really want to f–k you,” she tells him, adding with a coyness she’s preemptively rendered unnecessary, “That’s kind of a slutty thing for me to say, huh?”  Well, yes—not that this stops Stephen from acceding to her wish.  I suppose this constitutes gentlemanliness in 2011.  Still, if Stephen is as smart as everyone says he is, wouldn’t he have been on guard with a girl who admits to 20 before bedding him and then hints at 17 afterward?  Or am I hopelessly naive?  Also surprising is what else this young lady does with her body, although I should have seen it coming, so to speak.  In her corrupt innocence, Molly would seem to stand for an electorate all too eager to be used by political hotshots.  Suffice it to say that her wanton ways cinch the narrative to its fateful resolution.  To say more would be to diminish the film’s impact.

I will add this, however.  The film has garnered its detractors who have charged it with trading in cliché and cheap cynicism and, what’s worse, being illiberal.  One went so far as to suggest that one of the female characters is hopelessly 1950 in her failure to deploy effective sexual hygiene.  Talk about getting down in the mud!  I suspect these commentators were offended by the depiction of liberal politicians who say all the right things but then prove considerably less than their self-advertisements.  Had Clooney portrayed a Republican with the same m.o., I doubt these moral guardians would have complained at all.

Ides is not a great film.  It pales in comparison with director Michael Ritchie’s extraordinary political satire The Candidate (1972).  Still, Clooney has made a work of genuine substance well worth 100 minutes of your time.

I almost forgot: Some have complained that the title is pretentious.  Not at all.  Invoking Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar seems perfectly apt.  The narrative registers several assassinations, if we extend the term to cover political acts that obliterate souls.