Beau Willimon took his experience on the Howard Dean campaign and turned it into a play called “Farragut North,” for the Metro stop near the fancy Washington D.C. offices occupied by political consultants. Working with George Clooney and Grant Heslov, it has become “The Ides of March,” named for the ominous date when Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by his political rivals in 44 B.C. The reference is that while the blood may be more metaphorical than literal, it still gets spilled.
Ryan Gosling plays Stephen, an ambitious but idealistic young campaign worker who is responsible for media in the midst of the Democratic primaries. His candidate, Mike Morris (Clooney) is a progressive governor. In Ohio, a key state, they are ahead but their toughest competitor is close enough to make them nervous, especially since a New York Times reporter named Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) is trying to get a story out of it. Even if they win, she will spin them as losing if they win by less than they are predicting. So Stephen and his boss, Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have to come across as confident and — most of all — sincere. They have to be friendly and open with Ida but they have to be careful with her, too, and careful about letting her know just how careful they are being. Not that she is fooled by it. A lot of faux charm is deployed in both directions.
And there is a young, beautiful campaign worker named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) who is, as they used to say in the theater, the second-act complication.
Co-writer/director Clooney as assembled a powerhouse cast and it is worth seeing the movie just to watch the way Hoffman and Paul Giamatti eye each other as opposing campaign managers. But in adapting the play he made some poor choices. In the original version, the candidate himself did not appear. Making the Governor an important part of the story and having the character played by Clooney throws the film off-balance, especially when he finds it necessary to give himself a chance to spout some political promises that are just a distraction. It was much more powerful when everyone in the audience could project onto the candidate whatever positions they wished (or feared) he would take.
And Clooney ramps up the scandal from the original so that it becomes melodramatic and less realistic. By the time he brings out the big, big flag (ironically), with the idealistic speech in front of the audience and the angry exchange backstage, and the people having sex while watching the news on television, it has gone past heavy-handed to preachy. Did I really hear someone say, “This is the big leagues?”
Poor Wood has to struggle with a character whose behavior is so bizarrely unrealistic that she seems to be playing two different people. But Clooney evocatively captures the combination of cynicism about the system, optimism that something can be done to improve it, and grim ends/means practicality about arbitraging the gap. You can almost smell the stale coffee and put on five pounds from campaign trail stress eating. He knows the snap and rhythm of political talk, the constant temperature-taking and ceaseless spinning, so much spinning that the words go 360 degrees and then go around again.
Parents should know that this film has constant very strong and vulgar language, sexual references, scandalous but non-explicit situations. A young woman becomes pregnant and has an abortion and there is a sad death of a character.
Family discussion: How do the characters define loyalty?
If you like this, try: “The Best Man” (1964) with Cliff Robertson and Henry Fonda battling for the nomination and “The Candidate” with Robert Redford and classic movies about politicians and their temptations like “Alias Nick Beal,” “All the King’s Men,” and “The Great McGinty”