Politics is an ugly business. I've never been directly involved, but it's clear that at its heart, it's an industry that's populated by plenty of people who are jaded and opportunistic and others who are as dumb as rocks. We desperately want our politicians to be smart and interested in the public good, but one of the beauties and treacheries about politics, at least in this country, is that you don't need to be all that smart to be in charge.
Still, politics makes for great drama. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which immortalized the title of George Clooney's new film, was really a thriller on the stage. With that in mind, friends, San Diegans, countrymen, lend me your eyes, and let's discuss the genre's latest entry, in which Clooney wears his politics on one sleeve and his deep cynicism on the other.
In The Ides of March—which opens Friday, Oct. 7—Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Myers, a 30-year-old, hot-shot consultant who's smarter and better-looking than most of the people whose votes he's desperate to earn. Stephen's not nearly as jaded as his boss, Paul (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a veteran Democratic strategist who favors unkempt hair and down vests, mostly because Stephen's finally found a candidate in whom he truly believes. Yes, he's is convinced that Mike Morris (Clooney), a liberal governor, is the only hope for the nation. But the film is set in Ohio during primary season, and the road to the general election isn't a smooth one. Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) heads the campaign of Morris' bitter rival; reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) may be sitting on a damaging story; and staffer Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), Stephen's bed buddy, has a father who's insanely powerful.
There's simply too much corruption in the air— of principles, of ethics, of morals—for Stephen's idealism to withstand, and this is merely while trying to grab the Democratic nomination. He's talented, but too many people see the stars in his eyes when he looks at Morris and take advantage of his optimism. As Stephen's reality is unraveled by the people around him (to say how and why would be to say too much), he has to decide what he's willing to do to stay the course, and how much of himself he's willing to give up.
Caesar was assassinated by virtually everyone in his inner circle. But Clooney's governor is no Caesar, and neither is Gosling's Stephen. Sure, Stephen's romanticism is dying a death of a thousand cuts, but the biggest loser isn't any politician or operative; it's the country's collective idealism. All of this is played out through Stephen's eyes, as he learns some hard truths about politics. It's not like they haven't been opened the entire way, but his heart had yet to be hardened. He must ask himself how bad he's willing to be to further a truly noble cause. If he's corrupted himself to make the world a better place, what has he accomplished?
Clooney's film's greatest strength is its cast, populated by Oscar winners and Oscar nominees, actors with real chops who can bring these characters to life, led by Gosling, whose track record this year is unbeatable. The problem, however, is that it isn't as complex or deep as it wishes to be. When bad behavior arises, it comes as no surprise, but its predictability weakens what feels very interesting early in the movie.
You might say that the film's core message isn't about the audacity of hope—Clooney's Morris is the candidate that progressives wish Obama had been; it's about the strength of cynicism and how corruption dominates the process. Sadly, that's a message with which most of us are all too familiar.
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