The Ides of March (R)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), the precociously successful political media consultant at the center of The Ides of March, knows how to handle his business. Sure, he might believe that Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris (George Clooney) is the best candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. But he's also just fine with feeding a specious allegation about their opponent to the media, and with proposing mandatory national service for all 18-year-olds because "everyone who's too old to be affected will love it ... [and everyone else] can't vote." If you're looking for a starry-eyed idealist, best look elsewhere.
In the abstract, director/co-writer Clooney — working from Beau Willimon's play Farragut North with his regular collaborator Grant Heslov — has an intriguing variation on "surrendering principles to the dirty game of politics" narratives like The Candidate: What if the hero has very few principles to begin with? But it's no small trick to bring an audience along on that kind of character arc, and Ides can't quite navigate the narrow channel between "calculating bastard" and "even more calculating bastard."
In the days leading up to a crucial Democratic primary in Ohio, Morris is leading his more liberal opponent, an Arkansas senator, in the polls, and a win in Ohio would give Morris enough delegates to put him nearly over the top. But there are plenty of complex details for Myers and Morris' campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to contend with.
The crucial endorsement of another senator (Jeffrey Wright) requires careful negotiation. An open primary presents the possibility that Republicans will flood the Ohio polls to help take down Morris, the theoretically more "electable" moderate Democrat. And when Myers becomes aware of Morris' involvement in a potentially devastating scandal, he's forced to launch into rapid damage control.
The film's first half moves fast enough to avoid losing viewers to inside-the-Beltway chatter, and the punchy script provides enough entertaining situations so that following the bouncing ball isn't a chore. Best of all, the film captures the manic energy of people trying to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle: monitoring blogs and polling data for vital information, so immersed in the campaign that even when Myers is having sex with one of the campaign's interns (Evan Rachel Wood), he's got an eye on the TV.
But everything in the film ultimately pivots around the way Myers reacts when cornered — by the need to clean up Morris' mess, by rumors that he may have met with the opposing campaign manager (Paul Giamatti) — and that's where it hits a wall. Gosling's usual taciturn presence on-screen becomes problematic, in that we can never quite get behind Myers' need to maintain a slick, unruffled exterior. Does he ever really believe in the man he's working for? If not, is there anything at stake here besides a cynical look at petty interpersonal dramas?
Clooney tries to add directing flair, but many of his choices feel showy, though he opts not to show us a crucial moment we only later hear about, with Myers threatening revenge when he feels he's being thrown to the wolves. Despite the Shakespearean overtones of the title, Ides doesn't focus its attentions where they seem to be most crucial — on whether Myers is about to make the choice to sell his soul, or whether he's long since offered it up on the eBay of contemporary politics, and is just waiting out the auction's end.