The Ides of March is the fourth feature directed by George Clooney (after Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Leatherheads), and it's his best one yet. Actors who become directors tend to focus on performance at the expense of everything else. Clooney certainly brings out the best in his actors, but his driving trait as a filmmaker is that he knows what plays he has an uncanny sense of how to uncork a scene and let it bubble and flow.
The movie is a grippingly dark and cynical drama of insider politics, set during the days leading up to an Ohio Democratic presidential primary. Ryan Gosling, proving that he can flirt with sleaze and still make you like him, stars as Stephen Meyers, the idealistic but also shrewdly opportunistic press secretary to Gov. Mike Morris (played by Clooney), a soulful and articulate Obama-in-2008-esque candidate who is promising a new kind of politics. Morris and his team are out to win the endorsement of a senator (Jeffrey Wright) whose rival delegates could clinch Morris the nomination. The movie, adapted from Beau Willimon's play Farragut North (the screenplay was co-written by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Willimon), offers a densely shuffled version of actual headline campaign news: not just Obama but the Clinton scandals, Howard Dean, and a nod to Mike Dukakis, all knitted together with cameos by Charlie Rose, Rachel Maddow, and Chris Matthews that (for once) don't feel like stunt reality gimmicks but are woven into the movie's texture.
Early on, there's a moment that really makes you take notice: Marisa Tomei, as a New York Times reporter, tells Stephen and the governor's campaign manager (a brilliantly addled Philip Seymour Hoffman) that there's no way candidate Morris, with his hope-and-change rhetoric, could turn out to be anything but a disappointment. Hmmmm, we wonder...is this going to be the liberal Clooney's comment on the disenchantment so many Obama supporters feel about the president they once thought of as a savior? Well, sort of. Except that since The Ides of March is about a single primary fight, the movie, while stuffed with political talk-show gabble, isn't really about policy. It's about backstabbing, media manipulation, and what campaign managers do when they're not hatching plans in the war room.=
It's also about an office intern, played with luscious dazzle by Evan Rachel Wood, who gets into the middle of everything. Yes, the movie turns on a potential sex scandal, which makes it sound like another one of Hollywood's overheated prestige tabloid melodramas. But it's not. Clooney, as a filmmaker, packs the events in so tightly, and smartly, that the little ''aha'' parallels between the characters and actual politicians aren't the film's true hook. They're just the audience bait. What Clooney is really out to capture, and does, is the acrid, murderously toxic atmosphere of contemporary politics the double-dealing, magnified by the media, that turns policy into a corrupt game even when it's being played by ''idealists.'' The Ides of March has true storytelling verve, but it also plays like a rite of exorcism. It pulses along like an update of The Candidate fused with a political Sweet Smell of Success it's got that kind of noirish fizz.
Gosling gives a solid and sympathetic performance, even though I couldn't shake the feeling that he's a bit miscast. He doesn't have the brainiac Ivy League glibness of a young political hustler. Hoffman, on the other hand, seems to have been ripped right out of the Beltway, and Paul Giamatti, as a rival campaign manager, acts with a snakish low cunning. As for Clooney, he's perfect playing an all-too-compelling fiction: an Obama with a sinister side.
The Ides of March serves up everything we've come to know about the dirty business of how campaigns are really run in this country. That may sound like boilerplate cynicism, but what's new is that Clooney exposes how in our era the thorny process of politics has become the content, blotting out the meaning of policy the way an eclipse blots out the sun. The movie suggests that that's what occurred in the Obama administration. But it also says a spirit of venomous aggression has entered our politics, one that (the film implies) Obama would do well to embrace more than he has. The Ides of March isn't profound, but it sure is provocative. It's a fable of moral urgency, a savvy lament, and a thriller of ideas that goes like a shot. A–