"As Ohio goes, so goes America." This the pronouncement from a political commentator in George Clooney's latest film, The Ides of March. The setting for the Ides of March is the Ohio Democratic presidential primary. It's an appropriate enough place to set a political thriller, Ohio being one of those proverbial battleground states, as the political pundits like to remind us. The state usually does figure large in primaries and general elections. Just ask John Kerry, whose presidential aspirations found their graveyard in Ohio in 2004.
Much of the action (and a good bit of the filming) occur in Cincinnati, familiar territory for Clooney. His father Nick was a long-time television show host and news anchor in the Queen City. The elder Clooney also knows something about bruising political battles, having lost a difficult 2004 contest for the 4th Congressional District of Kentucky, just across the Ohio River. His father's experience as a talk and game show host influenced George Clooney's first film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind in it's shifting stages and backdrops, an appropriate expression of the fanciful story based on the memoir cum novel by Chuck Barris. There's just a touch of that here, in the film's first scene when campaign adviser Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is testing the audio system in an empty theater prior to a debate and a moderator's desk rises from beneath stage level, as if by magic. Clooney's second film, Good Night and Good Luck, also gets a nod from an early scene that cuts to pianist performing "We'll Meet Again," just as the action in Good Night And Good Luck was occasionally interspersed with tunes played by a jazz combo fronted by Dianne Reeves.
It's not great liberal hope Mike Morris but political wunderkind Stephen Meyers who serves as The Ides of March main character. "I've worked on more campaigns than more people have by the time their 40," says Stephen to New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), Gosling, as ever delivering his lines in an accent that sounds like Canada by way of Brooklyn. "My braintrust," as the governor refers to him, Meyers is reminiscent of then-Clinton-advisor George Stephanopoulos, ableit with added charm and movie star looks. All of that "...and you've got the best media mind in the country. All the reporters love you." This last bit of praise added by rival campaign mastermind Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) as he tries to woo the talented Meyers to the campaign of Morris' chief rival for the Democratic nomination.
Gosling's still youthful face is something of an innocent mask. He has often played a young man more simple or at least less corrupt than the world about him, in films such as The Notebook, Lars and the Real Girl, Blue Valentine and the recent Drive. Of course, leading the charge of a presidential campaign is no place for the innocent. When Stephen says "I'll do or say anything if I believe in it, but I have to believe in the cause," he's expressing the priorities of many a would-be-righteous candidate or campaign manager, ideals outstripped by the necessity of first assuming power. But there is still the longing for someone, something in which to believe. Here perhaps the strongest hangover felt by many liberals who essentially summoned their rusty idealism and said once more unto the breach, regarding Barak Obama as The One. Challenged by the cynical Times reporter, Stephen declares without a hint of irony, "He's the only one who's going to make a difference in people's lives." "I don't have to play dirty anymore, I've got Morris," he later says to the cunning Duffy, accentuating his point by slamming his hand down on the bar where they two men are meeting in secret.
While the big story of the primary and the larger campaign plays out, the national stage is lent some media realism with cameos by the likes of Charlie Rose and Rachel Maddow. However, director Clooney has his focus on the individual struggles. The camera often holds characters in intense close-up, as with glimpses of Morris and his wife, Cindy (Jennifer Ehle) together. These brief scenes would seem to reveal a relationship in which the pleasure of intimacy between two, well-matched, intelligent people has not been lost. After many years of marriage, away from the required amity of television cameras, they two seem to like each other. This adds another corrosive twinge to the film's ultimate revelation.
The driven Meyers slows down long enough to notice the attention and allure of Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), a "lowly intern" who happens to be the daughter of the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. After complaining, "...they put us into a motel on the other side of the river," she points out that they (the interns and other campaign foot soldiers) do have a better bar. "You ought to stop by one night and have a drink with the worker bees," she adds to an unusually discomfited Meyers (he can't remember her name).
Driven and smart though he may be, our Stephen is, in fact, composed of fallible flesh and blood. He breaks the rule of which he reminds his boss in The Ides of March climactic scene: "...you can start a war, you can lie, you can cheat, you can bankrupt the country, but you can't fuck the interns, they'll get you for that."
The illicit coupling between lowly intern and big man on campaign campus does take place. But Molly is carrying far more profound secrets than a fling with Stephen. Mr. Meyers, for his part, finds himself in trouble not over his choice of bedmate, but for falling into the trap of the meeting with the head of the rival camp, Tom Duffy. When the news of their meeting is leaked, the wunderkind finds himself for a time a man without a campaign.
When Meyers is fired by Paul Zara for meeting with Duffy, he responds not like a careerist who sees great opportunities being lost, but like a lover scorned. We had seen him previously distracted by the sight of Morris on television while he and the lovely Molly were in flagrante delicto. Meyer's temporary reversal is but the first in a series of major plot twists, with which The Ides of March explodes into something both quite credible but a little too familiar.
Clooney and Gosling, about 20 years apart in real life as in The Ides of March, are like two handsome stops on a political descent of man. For Clooney's Mike Morris, the good looks and charisma persist, but the mask is beginning to betray some weariness. More significantly, there is a kind of metaphysical stoop of the shoulders, the accumulated burden of years of compromise and ideals petrified. Both actors are quite good here.
The unpalatable compromise for Mike Morris is what it will take to collect the delegates of Senator Mark Thompson (a perfectly unctuous Jeffrey Wright). Thompson is out of the race, but knows his delegates are gold to both Morris and his rival. Whoever collects the delegates will win the nomination, however Ohio goes, demonstrating the difference in intelligence that often exists between those who read teleprompters on network news broadcasts and those who run major political campaigns. There are battles and there are wars. Men like Zara and Duffy, like one of their real-world models, Karl Rove, are paid to know the difference.
Clooney has said that he was interested in a story in that examines that point at which that you make that "trade off...that deal." Usually, it would seem, that point is reached slowly and without any telling drama, more a matter of gradual erosion than some single overthrow of long-cherished ideals. Of course, such gradual erosions are not the readiest of materials for political thrillers. None-the-less, The Ides of March might have proven a more enduring work if Mr. Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov had trusted their audience enough to show Mike Morris finally making that compromise, as it is usually made, for simple, craven political expediency, to get elected. As it is, the candidate essentially has a pistol barrel to his head, much as he had loaded the gun himself.