Wary of ‘The Ides of March’

Politics in America is a balancing act between idealism and cynicism, with the latter usually triumphing over the former at least in the near term, until a new surge of idealism arrives. As Lisa Pease writes, this ebb and flow is at the center of George Clooney’s new movie, “The Ides of March.”

By Lisa Pease

“The Ides of March” is a timely portrait of what is both right and wrong with our politics today. The story depicts the inner workings of the presidential campaign of Gov. Mike Morris, played with intelligence and charisma by George Clooney.

The story centers around young campaign superstar Stephen Meyers, played by Ryan Gosling. The story is, without giving too much away, a political coming-of-age story about the journey the idealistic Ryan undergoes, one not unfamiliar to many who have entered this realm.

In any campaign, morality traps abound, and few candidates or campaign workers, for that matter, make it through entirely unscathed, as the major characters and the audience learn over the course of the film.

To say more about the story would give away its surprises. If you’ve seen the previews, you have perhaps been misled, and that’s a good thing. The less you know about the plot, the more you will enjoy and appreciate the various twists and turns.

The film also delves, through the character of a reporter played by Marisa Tomei, into the symbiotic relationship between the reporters who cover the campaigns and the people who run them. Both need each other, both help each other, and — perhaps inevitably — both hurt each other.

The story is also a vehicle for Clooney to espouse the political views that he holds near and dear to his heart, and frankly, these were the parts of the film I enjoyed the most. You’ll never hear a real candidate answer questions so candidly, so enjoy the fantasy while it lasts.

Clooney shared a screenwriting credit with producer and longtime Clooney collaborator Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, who authored the play “Farragut North” on which the screenplay is based.

Although it is widely believed that “Farragut North” was based “loosely” on Howard Dean’s campaign, having worked on Dean’s campaign from the Vermont headquarters, I can assure people that about the only thing similar to the campaign is the feel of the campaign office.

If anything, the offices in the film were fancier than the actual offices that I saw in Vermont, Iowa and New Hampshire. Nothing in the film corresponds to actual people or events. And about the only resemblance to Dean that Clooney’s Morris has is that they are both articulate, outspoken Democrats. But there, the resemblance ends.

If you are a political junkie, you will especially enjoy this film. It’s fun to see talking heads of Charlie Rose, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews and others playing themselves.

I’ve worked on the paid staffs of two presidential campaigns myself, so I laughed out loud at a couple of inside jokes the rest of the audience didn’t seem to get. In fact, one audience member I overheard on the way out of the theater had clearly mistaken a comment about how people join campaigns “for the money” for the truth.

Anyone who has worked in a political campaign knows you make far less money for far more work on a political campaign than you do for jobs of similar responsibilities in the private sector. No one does it for the money. Campaigns are powered by true believers.

This is a good film, but not a great one. There are some odd beats that seemed out of sequence to me. For example, the mood of Meyers at the opening of the film is awfully similar to his mood in a similar but much later scene.

Given how much had transpired between those two scenes, it seemed to me more contrast was in order. There are several other moments that seem oddly placed, as if they should have happened sooner, or later, to tell the story in a more compelling way. But these are minor criticisms.

A special nod should go to the always excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Morris’ campaign manager Paul Zara. Hoffman’s consistently honest, understated performance makes him interesting to watch.

Paul Giamatti is also excellent and believable as the opposing candidate’s campaign manager. Evan Rachel Wood also does a compelling turn playing young and eager young campaign intern Molly Stearns.

The strongest reason to see this film is that it traffics in the darker side of politics, one most people either don’t know about or don’t want to know about.

I do believe that all sort of things are covered up more than we know, that blackmail is more a part of our system than anyone would dare admit, and that ambitious and good people can nonetheless be forced into choices they wouldn’t normally make, despite their best efforts to avoid that position. In that sense, the film felt very fresh and realistic.

Lisa Pease is a writer who has examined issues ranging from the Kennedy assassination to voting irregularities in recent U.S. elections.