Sometimes, it’s just nice to see a classic tale told well. George Clooney steps behind the camera once again for The Ides of March, an impressive political fable about ‘the line’ and the extent to which people in power should be allowed to cross it. Based on Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, it tells of an idealistic and prodigious campaign manager named Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) who evolves into a hardened cynic and loses his faith in presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney) over the course of one democratic primary. Small decisions have massive consequences, and squeaky-clean Stephen finds himself orchestrating larger and larger cover-ups despite his once unshakeable scruples. They are joined by priceless supporting players, including Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti as duelling wannabe chiefs-of-staff who’ll stop at nothing to get their guy into office. Marisa Tomei plays a dogged journalist for The Times, Jeffrey Wright appears briefly as the rogue independent whose endorsement could win Morris the election, and Evan Rachel Wood gives a sterling supporting turn as an intern that catches Meyers’ eye.
There is a lot to like about The Ides of March, particularly for fans of The West Wing (specifically seasons six and seven). Clooney – adapting Willimon’s production with regular collaborator Grant Heslov – helms with the same refined and restrained style he brought to the masterful Good Night, and Good Luck. There’s an innate pleasure in watching such sparkling dialogue spat from the mouths of these seasoned performers. And it’s not hard to see the real-world parallels littered throughout the picture either; in the lead-up to the 2012 American Presidential election, we’ve witnessed multiple movies worth of material (from the nutty characters in the Republican debates alone).
But the scope of Clooney’s film feels small; almost coy, as if he doesn’t want to overstate the importance of the events transpiring. The play’s original and intimate title feels more apt, particularly considering the way it recalls another small scale stage-to-screen adaptation (Glengarry Glen Ross). The Ides of March as a title implies world-shaking betrayals and bloody coup d’états. Though the picture has its fair share of back-stabbings and traitorous reveals, we never really get the sense Meyers’ and Morris’ decisions will irrevocably change the course of history. But we are in fact talking about a movie in which the ‘last good politician’ runs for President, and we are asked to sympathise with his increasingly morally dubious right-hand man (and to perhaps even forgive Morris’ own transgressions for the greater good). Clooney has no reason to be so bashful.
Those comments aren’t to be read as a massive criticism of the film; merely, to illustrate the way in which it’s ‘good not great’. It’s aspirations are low, but it’s buoyed by a solid cast. The Ides of March is like the charming, inoffensive candidate with some great ideas and an impressive brains trust. Eventually, the people ‘behind the man’ will go on to work with some real world-changers. In the meantime, this candidate is more than capable of spouting some mildly-inspirational truisms about the nature of politics and looking good in a suit while saying them.
The Ides of March arrives in Australian cinemas November 24, 2011.