The Ides of March

“Integrity matters. Dignity matters.” That’s what Governor Mike Morris, the candidate in The Ides of March, believes. But is there really a place for either in politics, and specifically in elections?

The Ides of March focuses on Stephen (Ryan Gosling), a wunderkind press secretary, who is working with his mentor, Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman), as the two try to make Pennsylvania governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) the Democratic nominee for president. (The film takes place over the course of about a week in March - during the primary season - in the battleground state of Ohio.) Stephen’s loyalties are tested when a rival campaign manager, Tom (Paul Giamatti) tries to poach Stephen. And, since this is politics, there’s an attractive intern, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), thrown into the mix.

It’s an intriguing set up, though I came to it with a biased point of view: The Ides of March, directed by Clooney, is adapted from Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North. Willimon, when he was in his early twenties, worked for Howard Dean, and in both his play and this movie, it’s difficult to overlook the similarities between the Dean and Morris campaign. I saw Farragut North in fall 2008, when it had its New York premiere at the Atlantic Theater. (My dear John Gallagher, Jr., played Stephen.) So much like someone who read the book before seeing the movie, I can’t review the movie based solely on its own merits.

To go into great detail about the differences between Farragut North and The Ides of March would be to give too much away. (I will say that my biggest gripe is that The Ides of March took some unnecessarily dark turns that, even without knowing the source material, I would be inclined to think of as a tad melodramatic.) Suffice it to say that the main difference between Farragut North and The Ides of March (which is adapted for the screen by Willimon, Clooney and his writing and producing partner Grant Heslov) is that Farragut North is about politics and The Ides of March is about loyalty. (Given this distinction, the respective titles are actually quite appropriate.)

This distinction is most clearly laid out in the ending, but so as to not spoil the film for anyone, I’ll give you another example. After some political maneuvers, Paul gives Stephen a lecture about loyalty and trust. Stephen has messed up and he apologizes by telling Paul he made a mistake. Paul bristles and responds, “You didn’t make a mistake. You made a choice.” The lesson being that making a mistake is a political misstep. Making a choice is a betrayal.

Another big difference - perhaps the difference with the biggest impact on the storyline and plot points - is that in The Ides of March, Governor Morris is a an actual character, one who interacts with the others, rather than just a face on a poster, as in Farragut North.

Including the candidate changed the tone of the story, and it also allowed Clooney to create his own Bartlet. (Hmm... maybe Clooney, Heslov and Aaron Sorkin should write some sort of political fantasy tale!) Morris is almost impossibly idealistic. Like Robert Redford at the beginning of The Candidate, he says what he believes and not necessarily what Paul or Stephen would like him to say. Morris fancies himself above spin. And he espouses several truly progressive ideals, like taking religion out of governance and publicly and staunchly supporting marriage equality. It’s refreshing to hear a “candidate” be so frank, and for this liberal reviewer it’s also exciting to hear a “candidate” speak to my values. Do you think such a candidate could actually get elected? If Governor Mike Morris was running in 2012 (and if we didn’t have an incumbent Democratic candidate) would you vote for him?*

The best thing about this political thriller, though, is the terrific ensemble. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are reliably good here, and The Social Network’s Max Minghella is effective here in a smaller supporting role. Marisa Tomei, an longtime favorite of mine, makes the most of a supporting role, one that proved much more pivotal in Farragut North. She plays Ida, a New York Times reporter following the campaign. And, of course, George Clooney is charismatic and convincing as the candidate every liberal wishes would run.

Now, when I first heard the casting, I was disappointed by the inclusion of Evan Rachel Wood. I’ve never really cared for her previous performances so I was concerned that she would bring her often pretentious air to this. I was pleasantly surprised, however, with her strong performance. Molly is far from a know-nothing, green intern; instead, Wood imbues Molly with maturity and confidence. Wood’s Molly skillfully asserts her place in the boys’ club as Wood goes toe to toe with the films great male actors, particularly Gosling.

Ryan Gosling turns in yet another fantastic performance. There are moments when he looks appropriately possessed. His eyes widen and then freeze, as Stephen tries to conceal his terror. There’s another moment when Stephen is all swagger, but a single, slight eye flinch from Gosling lets the audience know Stephen is vulnerable. My favorite moments, though, are the ones which find Stephen flirting with Molly because Gosling actually smiles! Generally, Gosling plays characters who are stoic or pouty - rarely cracking a smile on screen (like in the recent Drive). But here, Gosling’s Stephen allows himself to mix a little pleasure with business, and his delight shows through as Gosling lets us see those pearly whites.

So can there be integrity and/or dignity in politics and elections? I’m not sure. But as the 2012 primary season gets (prematurely) underway, it’s definitely interesting to watch back-room, political infighting, especially infighting that doesn’t have real-life economic or civil rights implications.

*(By the way, many states are making changes to their voting laws; make sure you are registered and that you know what kind of identification is needed at your polling place. Visit your state’s Department of Elections website, usually found by going to yourstatehere.gov.)

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