If great art holds a mirror up to society, The Ides of March holds that mirror up to politics and tilts it back at a flattering 15-degree angle: everyone looks thinner, jaws jut just a little bit more, and you can barely see the hairlines receding. With George Clooney as a dreamy presidential candidate (he also directs), the film injects Hollywood's Adonis DNA into the world of primary campaigns. However, from Kennedy to Clinton, FDR to Obama, the DNC has never had trouble picking a looker. The fantasy The Ides of March really wants to fulfill is closer to that of the disempowered playground geek: how to mix high-minded idealism with the ruthless drive that will make those ideals reality. This is a movie for all those liberal politicos who've been so abused by Karl Rove's dirty plays, their need to beat Rove was transmogrified into a desire to be Rove. Enter Ryan Gosling.
Gosling plays Stephen Myers, that most fanciful of political creatures, a press secretary who actually means something. Granted, if Times reporters had Gosling's blue eyes to contemplate during monotonous primary-season press conferences, you probably would get better coverage. While Clooney's Governor Morris tosses out Democratic wet dreams like Halloween candy -- agnostic religious beliefs! The right answer to the Dukakis rape question! No more internal combustion engines! -- Meyers spins reporters like pinwheels and makes sure Morris always comes off looking picture perfect. (Though, if you can't make George Clooney look good, you better find another line of work.) But when the icky opposition tries to lure Meyers away, he has to face the fact that Morris' uncompromising ideals might actually cost him the nomination--and that's just the first realization by this skewer-of-perceptions that his perceptions are the ones most skewed. Toss in the ultimate slutty intern, played by Evan Rachel Wood, and you've got the final ingredient necessary to make this betrayal stew boil over.
It all buzzes by fast and snappy, with duel-like dialogue, simmering casual sex and a needed dose of grubby, jaded humanity provided by Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman. However, when the spin-cycle finally hits tumble-dry, the great cast and impressive directing by Clooney feel more like they've been playing a game of backstabbing musical chairs instead of leading us to some tragic catharsis. Perhaps the reason is Beau Willimon's source material, his play Farragut North. It just can't handle the gravitas and melodrama with which it's been adapted. The play was partially based on Willimon's experience working the Iowa caucuses for Howard Dean's 2004 campaign, but Farragut North worked best as a critique of a twenty-something's delusions of grandeur rather than an eye-opener into a primary campaign. The Ides of March culls Farragut North's best one-liners, and adds some of its own, yet the repartee feels like pocket change rather than a substantial donation to the bank account of political exposé.
As Hollywood often does, The Ides of March transforms primary season into a slick world of perfect comebacks and frictionless power plays when the reality is far messier. Ask any Dean 2004 staffer, collegiate disorganization was what really undercut his Iowa push and dissipated his cover-of-Time momentum. Dean's infamous "yelp heard 'round the world" was just the bullet that put down a dying dog. Take cell phones for example: in The Ides of March, they're a perfect plot device for dirty-talk with sexy interns and dramatic revelations. In reality, the Dean campaign's passing out cell phones to interns in Iowa drained their funding, and every second spent flirting on a phone was a second not spent staying on top of fickle primary voters.* All the Machiavellian maneuvering in the world doesn't matter if you don't have the organization to back it up and transform personal charisma into mass appeal. The Ides of March takes efficiency for granted and machination as the moral challenge, when one suspects it's the other way around. Any good politician has to know how to cut a deal, the hard part is executing it. After all, to quote the ultimate master of ruthless efficiency Otto Von Bismarck, "Politics is the art of the possible." If only it was all as easy as simple moral compromise!
*Interestingly, the lesson in disorganization that Dean's staff in Iowa passed onto his campaign in New Hampshire ultimately proved salutary. Dean, of course, lost New Hampshire to John Kerry, but if you check the staff lists, the same kids who fought the good fight there ended up implementing those strategies successfully for Obama in 2008.