The Ides of March (2011)
Written by George Clooney, Beau Willimon, and Grant Heslov
Directed by George Clooney
The Democratic presidential primary has reached Ohio with sights on North Carolina afterward. Governor Mike Morris is neck in neck with his rival Ted Pullman, senator from Arkansas. Stephen Meyers is the junior campaign manager working to help Morris pull ahead and secure the win. He is invited to an informal meeting with the opponent’s campaign manager, Tom Duffy. Meyers weighs what to do, thinking about informing Morris’ senior campaign manager, then deciding against it and going in secret. At the same time, Meyers starts up with a relationship with Molly, an intern with the campaign. Through his involvement with Molly, he learns about a secret that his candidate has been keeping. Meyers is faced with the struggle of pushing forward for a candidate he believes will bring the change that is needed or adhering to his principles and bringing light to these secrets.
The Ides of March seems to have stacked in its favor. The film is based on a critically acclaimed stage play, Farragut North. The cast is full the brim with great actors: George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, and Evan Rachel Wood. This would lead a viewer to think they were in for a wonderfully performed piece of cinema. However, The Ides of March ends up feeling like just a middling, adequate film. It never says anything genuinely profound and its plot never goes to any surprising places. Everything around the movie is incredibly predictable.
I reminded of a much better film about the guile of ambition while watching this movie, The Sweet Smell of Success. Both it and Ides cover similar territory, a young up and comer and face the obstacle of compromising who they are to achieve their goals. Both movies take dark and cynical approaches to these ideas, but Sweet Smell has a more vibrant energy about it. Ides feels dull, and there’s no sense of momentum, even in the scenes where we should be feeling the internal tension of Meyers. The overall tone is flat, and so nothing has an impact in Ides.
I would argue that HBO’s Veep presents a more honest and believable picture of political machinations than anything The Ides of March brings to the table. Characters in this Clooney-directed outing spout stupid cliches (“As goes Ohio, so goes the nation” for example) and it makes them feel like characters in a script rather than living breathing people in this world. I got the strong sense Clooney was after an Aaron Sorkin vibe to the screenplay, and it falls flat, aping the worst things about Sorkin. I’m a liberal, and even I get tired of the Sorkin-inspired fantasia of Democrats in media. It’s not helpful, and it tosses aside any good critical self-reflection.
George Clooney has been attempting to be like directors he admires for a long time. He’s ping-ponged between wanting to be Steven Soderbergh, The Coen Brothers, and David Fincher, but has failed in all attempts. There’s nothing wrong with mimicking a tone or style you admire and making it your own thing over time. Clooney has made some entertaining movies, my personal favorite being Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. However, he has never made anything that transcends his idols. It is always just a lesser version of something these other directors would make.
The Ides of March is completely fine. And that’s it. Nothing about the film comes to any interesting or insightful conclusions about the political system we live with at the moment. This was made the year before President Obama re-election and five years before Trump won the presidency. Something about the drama and scandal feels quaint on reflection. I wonder what the scandal of a film made in this darker, more troubling era would even be.