The Ides of March is just about the last movie I expected to like.
It’s another one of those absurd liberal fantasies about Hollywood’s dream presidential candidate—an outspoken atheist antiwar war hero played by star/director/cowriter George Clooney, who is a shoo-in for the presidency because (I’m guessing here) some strange virus went around America killing off every right-leaning voter. Well, he’s almost a shoo-in; he has to get by his Democratic rival, who attacks Clooney’s character from the right on religion but is considered the more left-wing of the two. Clooney is better, it would appear, not only because of his views but because the other candidate has—horrors!—a Southern accent.
So imagine my surprise when it turned out I did actually like The Ides of March. I think you might like it, too, for reasons that have nothing to do with its politics. Despite its high-powered pedigree, this is a modest little movie, made on a very low budget for Hollywood ($12 million). What it has is some terrific acting, especially by this year’s breakout superstar, Ryan Gosling, who plays a hotshot young political operative with the same can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him charisma with which he inhabited the Lothario in Crazy, Stupid, Love and the silent and secretive protagonist of Drive.
Most important, though, it has a twisty plot that isn’t exactly believable but is so well executed that you don’t see where it’s going—and even when you think you’ve gotten there, you haven’t quite yet. In this sense, The Ides of March is both far less and far more than meets the eye. Though its politics give it a patina of middlebrow seriousness, and invite speculation about Oscar nominations, The Ides of March is really just an old-fashioned melodrama. And while it’s easy to write silly liberal speeches for George Clooney to deliver, it’s actually quite difficult to pull one of those off.
Nominally, the movie is about the professional crisis of Gosling’s Stephen Meyers, who is to presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney) what George Stephanopoulos was to presidential candidate Bill Clinton. He is a wizard with the press and with crafting a successful message for voters. We’re told this more than we’re shown it, with a New York Times reporter (Marisa Tomei) standing in for the entirety of the press corps. For the first time in his career, Stephen feels he is working for a candidate who will really make a difference. (I’m sorry for having used the phrase “make a
difference.” I couldn’t help it. It’s what the movie wants me to say.)
Stephen is in Ohio, preparing Morris for what seems to be an all-important primary. Like any young campaign hotshot, he has eyes for the interns, and one of them (the stunning Evan Rachel Wood) gives him the eye right back. Meanwhile, his rumpled, seen-everything boss Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is trying to get a problematic Democratic politician, whom their boss reviles, to commit 300 delegates to the Morris campaign and thereby secure the Democratic nomination without needing Ohio. Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who is running the rival campaign, is also chasing after those 300 delegates.
The pol with the 300 delegates wants a guarantee he will be secretary of state in the next administration. Morris refuses on principle; this is the kind of compromise he had vowed he would not make if he ran for president. Everybody around him, including his wife, looks at him with both stunned disbelief that he would not take the deal—and admiration that he is willing to sacrifice sure victory for it. Stephen is so sure the nation needs Morris as its next president that any minor compromise is justified.
The backdoor machinations surrounding those delegates lead to a clandestine meeting in an out-of-the-way location that kicks the plot into high gear. Strange offers are made; late-night phone calls are answered with mysterious hang-ups; in the name of loyalty, disloyal things are done. People start to act as though Stephen is a piece on a chessboard, but it turns out he has surprising gambits of his own.
The young idealist who is tempered by experience is a classic story, and The Ides of March (adapted from a play by a former Howard Dean staffer named Beau Willimon) offers a new twist on it. Gosling’s Stephen is a natural cynic who has been brought back to idealism by Clooney’s Morris. He gets his hopes up. It’s only proper that those hopes get somewhat dashed, and it’s also fun to watch.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.