Arts and Culture

'The Ides of March'

Ah, to live in George Clooney's America, where politicos have principles and movies are intelligent.

By Steve Burgess 7 Oct 2011 |

Steve Burgess writes about culture and travel for The Tyee.

The Ides of March offers up George Clooney in the role of a progressive politician. A stretch, sure, but if the public will buy Clint Eastwood as a cowboy, maybe they'll swallow this too.

At least ol' George, like cowboy Clint, gets to show us a dark side in this short, snappy little political thriller about the making of an American Machiavelli.

The young prince in question is not Clooney -- he plays Governor Mike Morris, trying to win the Democratic nomination for president -- but Ryan Gosling. Gosling plays Steven Myers, the governor's media chief. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Paul Zara, the governor's chief of staff, and Evan Rachel Wood is a fresh, eager young intern named Molly Stearns.

Lovely blonde Molly is soon making eyes at lovely blonde Steven, as who wouldn't? Meanwhile, over at the campaign of Morris' opponent, chief of staff Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) wants to poach young Steven for his own campaign. Of such elements are intrigue born.

Ah, Clooney politics

If Hollywood has ever made a movie that truly reflects American politics, I cannot bring it to mind. Hollywood politics exist in a parallel world, a world in which presidential candidate George Clooney can campaign against, I kid you not, the internal combustion engine.

That's a platform that would certainly get you elected president of The Tyee. But back in the real world, a progressive Democrat already reviled by the Tea Party as a closet Stalinist is commissioning a giant straw to suck up more oil from the tar pits of the Canadian north.

In the political world of The Ides of March, staffer Gosling can float a proposal for mandatory service -- military or community -- by young people. Back in the real world, a plan to provide health care for uninsured American infants filled auditoriums with bug-eyed, spittle-spewing lunatics calling Obama a second Hitler. Hollywood politics is George Clooney. Real American politics is Hank Williams Jr.

(Always has been, too. One interesting side note in Ken Burn's recent Prohibition series on PBS dealt with the 1928 presidential campaign of Catholic candidate Al Smith. Some of Smith's Republican opponents showed a photo of Smith posing beside the new Holland Tunnel and claimed that once in the White House, Smith would extend that tunnel all the way across the Atlantic to the Vatican. The birthers are heirs to a long and venerable American tradition.)

Rental candidate?

But if this movie's external politics are a bit fey, it doesn't matter much. Internal campaign dynamics are the real focus anyway. Gosling's young Turk soon discovers that, while politics ain't beanbag, it is a sport where the naïve can certainly get beaned. Meanwhile for eager intern Molly, things get even worse.

Myers' response to these developing events will determine his fate. Gosling is currently onscreen pulling off a few fast turns as The Driver in Drive. In The Ides of March, the question is whether he will end up in the driver's seat, or as roadkill.

Clooney directed this movie, another modest attempt at intelligent filmmaking a la Good Night and Good Luck. Ides is a nifty and, at only 90 brisk minutes, economical piece of work. But there are probably episodes of The West Wing that will stay with you longer than this shard of political soap.

The politics of the box office can be tough, too, and enjoyable though it is, The Ides of March has the look of a rental candidate.

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