I must confess, I’m a little bit confused about what kind of movie “Ides of March” wants to be.
It might be because I’ve been watching a lot of “West Wing” lately, and the basic setup of the TV series and “Ides of March” are the same. They’re not about politicians; they’re about the politicians support staff. George Clooney is in the early stages of a run for President. Ryan Gosling is Clooney’s assistant campaign manager; he’s front and center. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s his boss, and Paul Giamatti is the CM for the other side. Marisa Tomei (proving, after all these years, that she actually CAN act) is an aggressively inquisitive reporter, and Rachel Evan Wood is a hot young intern with connections.
And so it feels like a feature-length episoe of “West Wing,” which, frankly, isn’t that bad an idea for a movie. There’s plenty of behind-the-boss drama to tap in that vein; movies like “The Manchurian Candidate” and, um, “The Candidate” have gone there but really have barely scratched the surface; a dozen more movies could be made along the same lines (as long as they don’t have “Candidate” in the title.)
But the thing about these films (and West Wing) is that they are suffused with hope and the optimism of democracy from beginning to end — even when they’re about brainwashed candidates with Lady MacBeth mothers. The good guys win in the end, because that’s the way democracy works, in spite of all appearances to the contrary. “Ides of March” is, on the other hand, awfully glum and cynical. The candidate’s a douchebag. The people who believe in him end up dead, or sucked into a terrible, back-stabbing system. As the Presidential primary’s just gearing up, is this really the message that George Clooney — who not only starred but directed and produced – is wanting to send to the masses? That our beloved political system is broken beyond repair, and driven by ruthless, calculating men who keep out of sight and pull the strings?
Actually, I think “Ides of March” might be trying to be something else entirely, something the “West Wing” comparisons, though inevitable, don’t help it to be. It’s possible that “Ides of March” might be trying to be a morality tale following the same arc as “The Godfather.” Ryan Gosling is a version of Michael Corleone, a young man attached to power but determined to not let it corrupt him. (“That’s my family, Kay, that’s not me.”) He knows about the dirty tricks that go down in politics, but he’s determined not to engage in them; he also really thinks his guy could change the world for ordinary people in powerful and positive ways. But then things start to happen, lives and careers get put on the line, and he finds himself making choices he never imagined possible. By the end, he is just as ruthless and calculating as the people he despises.
I say it’s possible to see “Ides of March” that way, because I don’t think it really works that well. “Godfather” this ain’t; the pieces are there, but they don’t add up all that convincingly. Really, it’s much easier to see this as a glum, gloomy, and cynical look at the way our political system works. Like a candidate who can’t get traction outside of his home state, “Ides of March” might have ambitions to be more than what it appears to be, but can’t quite find the right rhythm, footing, or support.
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