By Richard Schickel
Action stars tend toward the gruffly inarticulate. Comedic actors babble a lot. That’s one of the several reasons why we happily anticipate George Clooney movies. He’s a guy who talks like a normally intelligent (and often quite witty) human being. He’s starry, all right, and gorgeous in an unassuming way, but you also think you’d have a pretty good time knocking back a couple of beers with him.
He’s the nominal star (and director) of “The Ides of March,” a not particularly thrilling, but sort of agreeable, political thriller, in which he is largely AWOL. That is to say, he plays a man named Mike Morris, the liberal-minded governor of Pennsylvania, embroiled in an Ohio presidential primary. He largely confines his activities to appearing at public events, advancing ideas that would, in the real world, prevent a successful run for alderman. His political opinions are OK with me—we have to cut a little slack for movie stars who have some bees buzzing in their bonnets.
That throws our interest, almost by default, to Ryan Gosling, playing a shifty press agent named Stephen Myers. I recently heard a TV host describe Gosling as “hunky,” though he seems more willowy to me. His slender stature suits a fundamentally weak man enduring an identity crisis. Is he the idealist he sometimes thinks he is? Or is he a more cynical figure, with his eye on the main chance? Early on, the opposition’s campaign manager (Paul Giamatti, one of several excellent character actors recruited to this film) offers Myers a chance to come work for him. He rejects the opportunity, but you can see that he’s more interested than he is prepared to admit.
Enter Molly Stearns (prettily played by Evan Rachel Wood), a 20-year-old intern who spells trouble to everyone in the theater, but looks to Myers as no more than an agreeable roll in the sack—the kind of girl you can make love to while you keep your eye on the television set, no questions asked.
Morris’ campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) gets wind of Myers’ possible defection, fires him and leaves him trying to claw his way back into the campaign. Hoffman is a shaggy sort of guy, which tells us that he is the only man with some principles in this movie. Specifically, he’s a loyalty freak, who takes the press agent’s flirtation with the enemy very badly.
But the fulcrum of the picture turns out to be, somewhat surprisingly, that intern, who comes to a sad, bad end that would be unfair to describe here. Suffice it to say, you could describe the moral of “Ides” to be “don’t traffic with interns”—though, of course, in the heat of campaigning in the real world that happens all the time. Suffice it also to say that the seemingly spotless candidate is not entirely immune to that impulse.
What is perhaps most interesting about the movie is how seamlessly it processes Molly’s tragedy. A pious news conference is held, a funeral is endured and then it’s back to scheming as usual. The true moral of the movie is, I think, that normal human emotions are simply roadkill when weighty matters—winning that primary, by whatever means possible—are in play.
This forces it into the category of Sad Commentary. In the end Clooney, for all his agreeableness, is just another pol with his eye on the prize. It would not have hurt the movie to portray him somewhat less blandly, somewhat more ferocious in his ambitions—a nice guy with a mean streak. Or at least a guy whose kingly indifference to the nitty-gritty of politics has real consequences for him.
That said, the movie’s plot—a perfect storm of smooth coincidences and barely probable occurances—keeps you absorbed, as do the variously strong performances. It is only later, when you are released from its lively thrall, that you begin to reflect on the possibility that the movie could have been something more than it is—a truly mordant commentary on the ugly opportunism of the campaign trail. Despite the smoothness of Clooney’s direction, it is, at bottom, a pop fantasy in which nothing is really at stake, morally or politically. The campaign simply chomps its way across the gray landscape of Ohio in early spring, all problems solved by a press release or a news conference or, at worst, a whispered conversation between amoral underlings whose only interest is saving their own asses—about which we do not in the end care very much.