Bedfellows make strange politics. In George Clooney’s trenchant “The Ides of March,” rival Democrats campaigning for the presidential nomination strategize the issues, cross swords in debate, and maneuver for advantage behind the scenes. But it’s what happens between the sheets that matters, as one contender confronts a career-wrecking scandal.
The film unfolds like a procedural thriller, taking us into the inner world of double-dealing and triple crosses. In addition to Clooney as liberal darling Gov. Mike Morris, there’s Ryan Gosling as his whip-smart young press secretary Stephen Meyers, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Morris’ experienced campaign manager Paul Zara, Paul Giamatti as Tom Duffy, the Machiavellian manager of a rival campaign, and Jeffrey Wright as self-serving power broker Sen. Thompson. At the edges of this boys’ club are Molly Stearns, a 20-year-old intern (Evan Rachel Wood) attracted to Meyers even though he can’t remember her name, and Ida Horowitz (Marisa Tomei), a conniving New York Times reporter whose friendly demeanor belies her willingness to back-stab her subjects.
Clooney, who also directed and co-wrote the film, locates the action in chilly Cincinnati during the Ohio primary. With iron skies above and slush underfoot, the setting is as murky as the drama’s morality. We meet Meyers on a deserted debate stage, standing in for Morris during the sound and lighting check.
Meyers runs through his candidate’s stump speech, choreographing each pause, gesture and applause line (we will shortly see Morris mimicking this performance to the letter). Meyers exits the auditorium with a seemingly off-the-cuff request for a change to the lectern’s height. He asks for it to be adjusted to compensate for Morris’ short-sightedness. Actually it’s a ploy to make rival Sen. Pullman (Michael Mantell) look shorter. Meyers is idealistic, but he’s not above sabotage.
At 30, Meyers is a hotshot strategist who works for candidates he believes in whole-heartedly. And he is besotted with the charismatic Morris, whose campaign graphics are clearly modeled on Obama 2008. During a hotel tryst with a campaign worker, Meyers can’t keep his eyes off a TV set running a Morris spot. The line between commitment and infatuation is none too clear.
“The Ides of March” draws its title from “Julius Caesar,” whose turning point comes when Brutus, who loved Caesar as a friend, is manipulated by Caesar’s enemies to betray him. When Meyers makes the mistake of meeting his adversary, Duffy, for a harmless drink, the characters here must wrestle with similar matters of trust, loyalty and honor.
Clooney makes his points without preaching, directing his fellow performers with an actor’s appreciation of their craft. He comes in close on those expressive faces and lets the magic happen. Gosling is the standout among the A-list ensemble, delivering a riveting, intensely focused performance. He has a wonderful moment when Meyers is faced with a fateful decision. The next scene is silent, a medium shot of him walking down the street. From the cadence of his walk, we know the choice he’s made.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is an actor at work.