The political thriller is a known quantity: cynical, frequently gritty, and not generally given to happy endings. George Clooney’s new film, “Ides of March,” is no different. The cast is spectacular, but the film winds up a rather heavy-handed, workmanlike piece, hampered by a so-so script. It’s not bad, but it’s not as great as we can be forgiven for hoping – much like the politician at its center.
Stephen (Ryan Gosling) is a campaign staffer for Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), an idealistic Presidential candidate who wants to run a clean campaign and make a real difference. Stephen has worked a lot of campaigns for such a young guy and can handle reporters easily, but he’s been swept off his cynical feet by Mike and turned into a true believer. His boss, Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is even more experienced and cynical, and is mortal enemies with Tom (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager for the opposing candidate. When Tom makes a play to hire Stephen away from the Morris campaign, everything begins to fall apart.
This should be a great film. Clooney is a very talented actor and a good director, and Giamatti and Hoffman are spectacularly gifted character actors. Gosling is surprisingly skilled under his poster-boy good looks, too. So why isn’t it amazing?
The problem is that it’s pretty much impossible to make a political film in this day and age that isn’t extremely heavy-handed. In a nation generally perceived as divided into extremes, everyone has passionate feelings about politics, and even more passionate ones about politicians – and filmmakers are no different . “Ides of March” lacks the light touch it needs to be anything but a two-by-four to the skull. Everything, down to the music, is heavy-handed.
There are two places “Ides of March” succeeds, and for some viewers they may be enough to make the film worth watching. The first is the acting. Giamatti, Hoffman, and Clooney are all in fine form. They’re somewhat hampered by the script at times, but for the most part they make their characters believable, complex, and a lot of fun to watch, especially when they interact. Gosling is perfectly cast as the golden boy of the campaign, the one we know is either going to be utterly torn up by the impending storm or who will rise above it and become the thing he hates. Gosling juggles his character’s blended cynicism and idealism with a fairly deft touch, and manages to make Stephen engaging even when he’s being despicable.
The other strength the film has is that it assumes the audience is intelligent. Some of its central exchanges are not actually heard, just shown – and sometimes not even that. One such conversation takes place inside an SUV with tinted windows while the camera lingers outside, stationary and without accompanying audio other than the over-the-top music. The context of the scene and the look on the face of the character who exits the SUV before it drives off say everything we need to know about how the conversation went.
Taken as a whole, “Ides of March” is a solid political thriller. No, it’s not subtle. It’s not groundbreaking. But if you’re looking for an entertaining hour and a half, and want to watch an indictment of the political machine that takes idealists and crushes them into paste, you’ll probably find that it hits the spot.