George Clooney assembles a powerhouse cast for The Ides Of March, his fourth directorial effort and by far his strongest outing yet, which is admittedly faint praise when you consider that short list includes Leatherheads, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, and Good Night, and Good Luck. Clooney takes a surprisingly small supporting role as Mike Morris, a U.S. governor campaigning for the Democratic nomination in the American presidential race. Outstanding performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, as competing campaign managers, offset additionally excellent work from Marisa Tomei as a New York Times reporter, Jeffrey Wright as an influential senator, and Evan Rachel Wood as a flirty campaign intern who suddenly finds herself as an important cog in Morris' political destiny. Ryan Gosling is the film's main star, adding another impressive performance to his acting resume as Stephen Meyers, the idealistic press secretary for Morris' campaign. Meyers' charisma and smarts have served him well, as he finds himself on the political operative fast track at the relatively young age of 30.
The film, adapted by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon from Willimon's 2008 play Farragut North, is set just before an Ohio Democratic presidential primary, capturing a brief three day period in the ridiculously drawn out and bloated election process that one must undertake in pursuit of being the leader of the free world. Morris is a thinly veiled Barack Obama archetype: highly intelligent, articulate, charming, and espousing high-minded ideals that promise a new style of politics. Morris even has campaign posters that unabashedly echo Shepard Fairey's iconic "Hope" poster from Obama's 2008 campaign, with the word "Believe" substituted instead. Sexual intrigue, paranoia, cutthroat political strategizing, tests of loyalty, and media spin are all key elements in the story, lifting the curtain for a fascinating view into a fast moving world that would rather you not see how the sausage was made.
The movie does take an unfortunately jarring separation away from reality, though, when Morris declares during a debate, "I am not a Christian or an atheist...my religion is written on a piece of paper called the Constitution...if you think I'm not religious enough, don't vote for me". That ambitious dialogue just doesn't ring true when you consider the overly important role that a powder keg issue like religion continues to play in American politics. Similarly, Morris' blunt response to a question from journalist Charlie Rose on capital punishment seemed highly implausible. These, along with the disappointing closing scene of the film (that doesn't deliver nearly the impact you expect Clooney intended) are the very few missteps that The Ides Of March makes, however.
Viewers who aren't political junkies shouldn't shy away from seeing this film, even if there are scattered moments throughout it where some of the politi-speak might elude their grasps (I got briefly lost a few times, cursing myself that my years of religiously watching The Daily Show and seven seasons of The West Wing didn't instill a better knowledge of the American political system). Any of the scenes involving Hoffman (at his dismissive, cantankerous best) and Giamatti (weaselness personified) are reason alone to watch The Ides Of March, which I feel has one of the best ensemble cast performances I've seen in recent memory. Gosling's exceptional work just feels like icing on the cake.