The Ides of March, George Clooney's new directorial effort, provides the grittiest of views of the moral deterioration of a very young and savvy political operative. Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is the number 2 man in the Ohio Democratic party presidential primary campaign of Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney). The number 1 man in the campaign, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a cynical, hard-as-nails advisor who, at first, we feel will be half of a two-man team of villains, the other one being Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager of the opposing Democratic party candidate.
Stephen becomes involved with Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), a very young intern in the Morris campaign, and all seems well for a continued romp in the campaign trail bed until Molly reveals that she is pregnant, and that Governor Morris is the father of her baby. Stephen sets out to get her money for an abortion while admonishing her to keep her mouth shut, almost at the same time that the opposing campaign manager, Duffy, attempts to recruit him into jumping ship from Morris and coming over to the other side.
Stephen peers into the abyss of political betrayal, and is attracted by it.
This series of very personal moral complications is the story in this film, and it is a compelling one. The colorful political machinations of debates, appearances on Charlie Rose and speechifying provide a kind of circus-like glamor to the lives these people are leading. But the real story tells of the corrupting influence of the grasping for power on their individual morals.
Because these are Democratic Party politicians, there is nothing of the self-congratulatory Christian up-tightness that fuels almost all Republican Party politics these days. You won't see any pious prayer meetings in this movie (except for a Catholic Church funeral) and the only faith-based nay-saying comes during a debate in which a right-wing religious zealot journalist is easily made a fool of by Governor Morris. One would only wish that more Democratic Party candidates were as quick as Clooney's character is, and less buffaloed by the Republicans' offended nostrums in support of dismantling the splendid achievements of the progressive politics of the last eighty years. Social Security, Medicare, the Right to Privacy, etc. The conflicts in this film are of a far more profoundly moral sort than any you'll find in The Tea Party, because they have to do with individual responsibility rather than some rigidly held ideological inanity. The battles fought are for personal loyalty, truth telling and integrity and, except for one character, the major players all lose those battles.
The only false step in the film lies with the revelation of Molly's pregnancy, which she reveals after Stephen intercepts a late-night call she gets on her cell phone, from Mike Morris. Apparently, we learn, she was already pregnant before she ever made the attempt to get into bed with Stephen. You would think, then, that Molly would have been at the same level of angst when she was first attempting to seduce Stephen as she is during the wonderfully acted scene in which she admits to him her dilemma. The trouble is that when she and Stephen are first doing it, she appears only ecstatic and humorously raunchy. So for me her anxiety-laden pregnancy renders her joyous sexiness with Stephen emotionally phony. If she's so frightened and immobilized when she tells Stephen the truth, why wasn't she before, when she had all the same information about her plight? The problem in the script could have been resolved by a single line, during the moment in which she tells Stephen of her pregnancy, that she has just that day learned the truth of it. This would have made justifiable all of Molly's earlier carefree enthusiasms and enabled us to believe that her initial seductiveness and her later fearfulness are all of a piece.
Ryan Gosling's performance here is inspired. At first he seems a naïve, though smart, freshman in the political arena. He's a realist, but he also believes in things. He thinks Governor Morris is involved in a campaign for good. Stephen is the foil to Paul Zara's seamy Machiavellian disdain of all things idealist. Gosling's presentation of a young man who is finally so conflicted and corrupted that he is reduced in the last scene to distracted wordlessness, reveals Stephen's turn to true villainy. Hoffman's portrayal is also masterful. His Paul Zara is dumpy, dresses poorly, looks to be in perilous health, and speaks a mono-syllabic, profanity-ridden language. In the end, though, he is the only person who has acted out of principle. All the others have compromised themselves terribly.
I've read some criticism of this film that accuses Clooney of being too beautiful, too smart, too George Clooney to be believable as the presidential candidate. The finesse of his performance lies in his ability to make us believe that Mike Morris is indeed an idealist, until a scene with Stephen in a restaurant kitchen, in which Stephen threatens to blow the candidate's cover regarding the intern. The thick substrate of corruption that Clooney reveals in this scene, which he makes entirely believable, also reveals his character's basic lying phoniness. His projection to the public of do-good, uncompromised idealism is a lie. To me, this is simply a case of well-crafted truth telling on the part of George Clooney.