For the completely oblivious, the title of The Ides of March is an allusion to Julius Caesar, who was warned to “beware the Ides of March,” which wound up being the date that he was betrayed by his statesman and stabbed to death. While George Clooney’s The Ides of March doesn’t have anyone stabbed to death, it does play heavily with the theme of betrayal, although who is betraying who (or what) isn’t exactly what you might surmise from the film’s trailer, making the movie an excellent, somewhat unpredictable drama about the seedier side of politics and the power of loyalty and betrayal, even among an ideal candidate’s campaign staff.
Clooney returns to his comfortable spot behind the camera as writer and director of The Ides of March and once again puts himself in a supporting role in the movie in a role that is essential for the film but not fully in the spotlight. In this case he plays Governor Mike Morris, one of two candidates in the race for the Democratic primary. Morris is the good guy – the idealist who has the vision to change the world (sound familiar?). It’s Morris’s campaign that the film centers around, but instead of the story being about the governor, it’s about his campaign staff, specifically Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), the brain trust of the operation. Stephen is something of a phenom in the political world; an exquisite spin doctor who is able to charm the press and sort through the mudslinging despite his youth.
As the trailer reveals, Stephen makes a bad move, meeting with the opposing side’s campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). When he doesn’t act on information he gets from that meeting, Morris’s veteran campaign manager (and Stephen’s boss and mentor), Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) sees Stephen’s action as an act of betrayal, and soon Stephen finds himself on the dirty side of the political world, punished for his lack of loyalty. The irony is that, at the exact same time, he’s trying to clean up a mess the Governor created with such discretion that neither Morris nor Paul even know what Stephen is up to. Stephen’s very loyalty is what is making him look like he’s turning against his candidate.
Stephen becomes a fascinating character as the story unfolds, wonderfully brought to life by Gosling. Cocky and overpowered for someone so young, it becomes quickly apparent that Stephen hasn’t experienced the truly dark side of his chosen profession until the events of this movie. In the middle of his own crisis, he lectures his would-be love interest Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) on the cost of screwing up: you get sent home. The audience is left wondering whether Stephen is unconsciously hypocritical or really thinks he’s that powerful as a spin doctor that he thinks the rules he spells out for someone else don’t apply to him. What makes the character work most is that he isn’t a bad guy. He suffers from a minor case of hubris, but he really is trying to do what he thinks is the right thing, making his story an interesting one to focus on.
Obviously, anyone who gets the titular allusion is going to be looking for betrayal in the story’s plot, so Clooney plays with those expectations by putting betrayal everywhere. Instead of the single proverbial backstabbing that the trailer reveals, there are all sorts of moments of deception. Even more fascinating in the story’s theme becomes the illusion of betrayal and how people act when they think someone is being disloyal, even when they are actually acting in someone’s best interests. The whole thing becomes a very interesting and rich theme to explore, and Clooney mines it for all it’s worth.
While I expected the theme, what I didn’t expect was the approach Clooney would take with his film. The darker the world of politics gets, the more Clooney adopts a film noir style for the story’s shady dealings. Hard shadows and silhouettes abound, and several scenes unfold to a sketchy orchestration instead of letting the audience hear the dialog between characters. It isn’t a stylistic approach I would expect for a political drama, and yet it underscores the story and theme brilliantly, making this my favorite of Clooney’s directorial endeavors.
As for the overall content, Clooney takes quite a risk by setting his story in the crisis point of a Democratic primary. It’s difficult to avoid drawing parallels to today’s political world and one can’t help but wonder if Clooney doesn’t take advantage of that by climbing on his soapbox in a few of the film’s debates and speeches. The risk is alienating part of the potential audience, either the conservative side which is slightly maligned in the film’s Democratic perspective, or the liberal side that doesn’t like how the Democrats are portrayed. Between the theme of betrayal and the seedy approach to dirty politics, it’s the kind of movie where you can’t help but hope that Clooney has taken some artistic license with the content, although there’s a good chance he’s captured a lot of the political underbelly with skill and style.
Both from a stylistic and thematic viewpoint, The Ides of March is a richly assembled picture. Add in the incredibly talented cast and Clooney is really showing his skill as a filmmaker, both behind and in front of the camera. It may not sit well with the fervent politically-minded, but The Ides of March offers a lot to think about, both about contemporary politics and in who or where we put our trust, and how easily that trust might be lost, either consciously or through misperception.