Dir. George Clooney. U.S.A. 2011.

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“Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” - Mark Twain

My own short-lived career in California politics allowed me to participate in the same playing field with many idealistic and courageous people, some who are in Congress today, yet it also gave me a taste of the compromises that are often necessary when someone is serious about a political career. George Clooney's fourth film, The Ides of March, a political thriller set in the midst of a Democratic Presidential primary in Ohio, is a smart film about people who do not act very smartly. In this case, a careerist press secretary seems to lose his idealism when he is suddenly sacked for an indiscretion, an ambitious young intern becomes accessible to the campaign in too many ways, and a certain Governor makes lofty promises on the campaign trail but forgets to bring his morals to the party. 

Based on the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon who, together with Clooney and Grant Heslov, adapted it for the screen, The Ides of March is a well-done, entertaining, and riveting film that has a stellar ensemble cast that includes Ryan Gosling as Stephen Miles, a press secretary dedicated to the Presidential candidacy of Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) who is locked in a tight Ohio primary battle with Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman. Playing strong supporting roles are Philip Seymour Hoffman as Paul Zara, Morris' scrappy veteran campaign manager, and Paul Giamatti as the conniving campaign manager for Pullman, Tom Duffy. As the film begins, Miles walks into a darkened auditorium and, as the lights go on, tests the sound system by reading some of his boss' campaign rhetoric.  

His belief in Morris' candidacy is unshakeable and he tells New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), “This thing, it's got me starry-eyed again. It's reminded me of why I got into politics in the first place."  The dubious reporter tells him that his idealism is likely to be shattered when Morris turns out to be different than his expectations. Brushing her comments aside, Miles' eyes light up when he hears the Governor deliver a speech asserting that his religion is the U.S. Constitution and that he opposes padding the pockets of the wealthiest Americans. His remarks, however, consist mostly of the vague and meaningless catch phrases we are all too familiar with.

The stakes are high for Morris as a win in Ohio would likely give him enough delegates to win the nomination. Aware of this, Pullman's campaign manager devises a fool-proof scenario to bring Morris down that involves a top player on Morris' staff. Meanwhile, things get more complicated when Steve has an affair with Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), a 20-year-old intern, and an influential Senator (Jeffrey Wright) who owns 161 delegates, wants to make a deal for a cabinet post or a spot on the ticket. Needless to say, no one emerges from this scenario very clean and with all the power plays, maneuvering, and dirty tricks, the idealism with which the campaign began gives way to the “whatever it takes to win” mentality. 

In spite of the excess cynicism and melodrama and some character motivations that do not quite ring true, The Ides of March is a basically honest film that does not pull its punches; however, some very important aspects of the contemporary scene are left out such as the poisonous and corrupting influence of big money in politics, and the willingness of many candidates to cater to the most regressive elements in society. We know about the corruption in politics but some forget that there are people remaining in political life who have not given up their principles and who know that they can still make a difference through their energy and integrity, and to begin, in the words of Pete Seeger' song, “to bind up this sorry world with hand and heart and mind.”


Howard Schumann

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