The Ides of March (2011) – directed by and starring George Clooney – takes a swipe at the ruthless back-room deals and media hype that lie at the heart of American politics. Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) is running against Senator Pullman in a presidential primary race for the Democratic Party ticket. The film opens at a critical stage on the campaign trail with the two candidates battling for Ohio.
Based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, who himself worked on the staff of a presidential hopeful, the main focus of The Ides of March is the political machinations of the two campaign teams.
Clooney’s film adaptation (co-written with Willimon and Grant Heslov) differs from the stage version by having Morris present throughout – the governor is the catalyst for much of the drama, but he’s not the main player. Ryan Gosling takes on the central role of Stephen Meyers, Morris’ idealistic press spokesman, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is his veteran campaign manager Paul Zara. When Stephen makes the fatal mistake of meeting with their opposing number Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), he becomes embroiled in a series of power games that make a mockery of the whole democratic process.
Echoing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, The Ides of March is about political backstabbing, betrayal and revenge. It is also Stephen’s rites of passage – driven by ambition, he undergoes a dramatic transformation from an earnest campaigner, who truly believes in his candidate, to an embittered Brutus-figure who is prepared to go to any lengths for the sake of his career.
Clooney directs this political thriller with clear-sighted precision and a light touch, which makes it both accessible and entertaining. He has also assembled a top-notch cast. Through numerous close-ups, Gosling effortlessly conveys both Stephen’s inner turmoil and, later, his steely-eyed determination to succeed whatever the cost.
Clooney gives a nuanced performance as the smooth talking statesman with a guilty secret that threatens to ruin his career – the full force of the governor’s hypocrisy hits home when he gives a speech on how integrity and dignity matter. Giamatti and Hoffman are spot-on as the two world-weary campaigners, Marisa Tomei impresses as cynical journalist Ida Horowicz (herself prone to manipulation and blackmail if it involves a good story) and Evan Rachel Wood plays intern love interest Molly Stearns with notable assurance.
The Ides of March may not cover any new ground in its exploration of the shadier side of American politics, but it’s nevertheless an enjoyable journey down the campaign trail, where the stakes are high and dirty deals are cut for political gain.