George Clooney, who directs, plays a Democratic presidential candidate. By the time of the Ohio primary, which is on the date of the title (which also refers to political skulduggery, minus the knives, in 44 B.C.) the race is down to two candidates. Since Ohio is an open primary, conservative Republicans are urged to vote for Clooney’s opponent, who is seen as less electable. This is a bit of a fantasy, as Clooney’s first statement as a candidate in the movie is that he is not a Christian, something that would doom any real candidate. This is the kind of wish fulfillment of liberal screenwriters that characterized The West Wing.
Clooney, who is a peripheral character in the film, is managed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a crusty old pro, and Ryan Gosling, a young hotshot. Clooney’s opponent is managed by Paul Giamatti (giving another performance where he wheezes most of his lines). Giamatti asks to meet with Gosling to try to seduce him to come over to his campaign. This sets off a chain of events that snarls everyone, including a young intern (Evan Rachel Wood).
There’s some good stuff here, but I didn’t believe most of it. I have no idea what goes on in a political campaign, but it didn’t ring true to me. For one thing, I had trouble with Gosling. I don’t have anything against him as an actor per se, but I noticed something here. When he’s playing uneducated characters, such as in Blue Valentine or Drive, his vocal technique seemed correct, a kind of streetwise diction. But here it’s the same. A political operative, it seems to me, would be from a top school, and wouldn’t sound like he was pulled out of an episode of Welcome Back, Kotter. You can’t use the same voice as a psychopath from Drive and a campaign manager in The Ides of March. Also, Gosling’s so-called brilliance is never on display in the film. Everybody says he is, such as the scene with Giamatti, who tells him how wonderful he is. It’s telling, not showing.
I also had trouble with the central conflict. Clooney is involved in a scandal that Gosling knows about. I won’t go into details, but it’s the kind of scandal that history has seen before and struck me as totally unoriginal. I’m not sure that, in its earliest form, it would have ruined a candidate. Strangely, it reminded me of the film Easy A, in which a high school girl’s reputation is ruined because people think she had sex. Not in this era, people.
But I do give the film a thumbs up, with reservations. Clooney gives an interesting performance. At first you think he’s playing to his type, a charming, slightly roguish liberal do-gooder, but Clooney gives him shading as the film goes along that surprises. A key scene between he and Gosling in a kitchen at the end of the film is crisply acted, written, and directed.
I also liked Hoffman, who plays a guy who has seen it all. It seems naive that a campaign manager would value loyalty, of all things, more than anything else, but I believed him when he said it. When things don’t go his way, his character accepts it as part of the game.
Where this film disappoints is that it lacks a big picture. One shouldn’t review a film for what it is not, but it seems to me that Clooney missed a chance here to make a statement about the insanity of the American political process. Instead, it’s simply a small study of a few characters. The film teases–it makes references to real political figures, and uses the imagery of Shepard Fairey’s Obama “Hope” posters, but aside from that I don’t see any parallel between Clooney’s character and Obama. I’m a big Obama supporter, but I see nothing wrong with a film taking subtle shots at him.
I did like some of the maneuvering that went on, that I do believe exists. Mostly this entails a senator from North Carolina (Jeffrey Wright) who dangles his endorsement to the highest bidder. That seems completely plausible to me.
My grade for The Ides of March: B-