The Ides of March
Last spring, during a fund-raising event in Los Angeles, President Barack Obama was catching up with George Clooney (whom he's known as a Democratic supporter and Darfur activist), and the leader of the free world asked the actor what he was working on. As it happened, Clooney was wrapping up production on a movie that he was directing and starring in called The Ides of March, set in a world Obama knows well: a presidential campaign. Not only that, Clooney was playing an inspiring Democratic candidate trying to win a hard-fought, high-stakes Ohio primary. ''He said, 'Should we screen it?''' Clooney remembers, laughing. ''I said, 'Absolutely not!'''
The Ides of March is not the sort of movie likely to lift the spirits of a president who's already got plenty of problems on his plate. Part morality tale, part thriller, Ides offers an unflattering warts-and-all look inside the machinery of a presidential campaign, exploring the lengths people will go to in order to attain power, even at the cost of everything they say they hold dear. Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Meyers, an idealistic young media strategist working for Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney), a rising Democratic star battling for his party's nomination. When Meyers learns that Morris has a secret that could destroy his campaign (don't worry, we won't spoil it), he's forced to choose between his highest values and his desire to win, whatever it takes. ''I don't really find it to be a movie about politics,'' says Clooney, who co-wrote the script based on Beau Willimon's play Farragut North with producing partner Grant Heslov. ''It's about a guy doing anything to win at the cost of his soul. Those are universal themes you could play with in any genre or in any workplace. It's just that the political arena is so much fun to work in.''
Of course, Clooney has spent years rubbing elbows with people in that arena, and that inside knowledge helped attract top-notch actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, who play rival campaign managers, and Marisa Tomei, who portrays a New York Times reporter despite the film's modest $12 million budget. ''This film is in George's wheelhouse,'' says Gosling. ''Watching him direct was like watching someone try to explain a song that's in his head, like Michael Jackson in This Is It trying to tell that keyboard player how to play that part. He knew exactly how he wanted it.''
While Clooney is well-known for his passionate support of liberal causes, with Ides he was careful to avoid taking sides. In fact, he says, he steered clear of making the less-than-squeaky-clean Morris a Republican to ensure the audience wouldn't see the film as overly politicized. ''This movie is pretty insulting to everyone,'' he says. ''It's not kind to anybody at all.'' Though this outlook seems in tune with the country's generally sour political mood, the timing is pure coincidence. Clooney had actually intended to make Ides back in 2008, but following Obama's election he decided to put the project, already in preproduction, on hold. ''Everyone felt so good and was so hopeful that we were like, 'Oh my God, we can't do the movie,' '' he says. ''But times obviously change quickly, and the world got very cynical again. Movies find their time and their place.''
As much as he enjoyed playing a make-believe presidential candidate, Clooney insists he has no desire whatsoever to pursue elected office. ''Look how much fun it must be for President Obama right now,'' he says. And though Ides is already accumulating buzz as a potential Oscar magnet, Clooney says he won't be out on the awards-season stump, either. ''I know the popular thing is you have to go out and kiss babies to get nominations and stuff,'' he says. ''I did that once when I had Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck [in 2005], but I don't need to do it again.'' Win or lose, he understands that campaigning is a perilous business. Josh Rottenberg Oct. 7