Beau Willimon's play “Farragut North” (which I was lucky enough to see a few years back), while taking place in the present, is kind of a universal polemic about how the political system seems expressly designed for soul-crushing compromise, and requires that you become the worst possible person you can be. At the end of the play (and I'm not spoiling anything here) the lead character makes a grand gesture of selling out and deviousness that he never would have contemplated at the play's beginning. This tale of political compromise is something that we've all pretty much seen before, starting with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, speeding through my high school classroom screenings of The Candidate, and lasting all the way up through the remake of All the King's Men. George Clooney's new film adaptation of Willimon's play, now entitled The Ides of March, and being about a presidential primary rather than a mayoral one, doesn't do too much to expound on the idea of a corrupt political system, except to inject it with some vital topicality and modern political significance that is lacking from most political thrillers of this ilk.
The Ides of March is about a young hotshot named Stephen Myers (an uncharacteristically animated Ryan Gosling, looking more and more like Sean Penn) who is second in command of Governor Mike Morris' (Clooney) primary presidential campaign. Myers, while often giving impassioned speeches about how he's doing a great thing, and how much he would love to have Morris in the White House, doesn't seem to really believe what he's saying; his moral certitude seems to be undercut by a slight twinge of cynicism. This isn't obvious by any stretch, being relegated to small throw-off lines of dialogue, and a general feeling of untrustworthiness in the air, but Myers, while being whip-smart and charming, seems to have a very slight sheen of slime on him. That a comely reporter (Marisa Tomei) points out that Myers would have a secure 4-year job should Morris be elected doesn't help his vague air of opportunism.
Despite his better instincts, Myers takes a shadowy meeting with the campaign manager (Paul Giamatti) of the Morris' central Democratic opposition. This meeting will have a certain moral crux, but I don't want to say who finds out about it or when. Needless to say, Myer's boss Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman) will spend a good deal of the film yelling at him.
There is also a subplot involving a pretty young (possibly teenage) intern named Molly (Evan Rachael Wood) who becomes secretly involved with Myers. She'll have more to do down the line as well.
The bulk of the film is devoted, rather refreshingly, to quickly thrown-off shoptalk. The ins and outs of the campaign are so subtle, and the details so precariously based on general impressions, and vague manipulations, that you have to watch really closely to understand what's going on, why certain pieces of information need to remain secret, and why the consequences of such information getting out are so damning. Clooney, who wrote the screenplay along with Grant Heslov (his previous collaborator on Good Night, and Good Luck. and the director of The Men Who Stare at Goats), really has an ear for the casual and specialized banter of the hotshot politico; the writers did their homework. The entire first two thirds of the film have the calm idiosyncratic qualities of a mellowed-out Mamet. This is aided by Clooney's bare and straightforward directing style; he is a practical director.
It's in the film's final third, where the story takes a great leap away from Willimon's original play, that things begin to take a turn for the melodramatic. I can't reveal exactly what happens, but I will say that no one died in the play. I guess the amount of moral compromise presented in the play wasn't enough for the filmmakers, so they had to add an entire subplot where people sell out to a greater degree. Kind of odd that things needed to be made more theatrical than the theatrical source material.
About that modern-day significance. Like Tim Robbins before him, Clooney is a left-wing filmmaker who will only make a political thriller with some sort of applicable political message. The Ides of March makes some very direct and up-to-date references to the current state of the Democratic and Republican parties, commenting that the former is now and has always been un-unified, and the latter is currently scrambling to come up with a viable candidate. And while the film isn't dripping with significance, it was nice to have something that related to the way politics are actually working these days, rather than have just another parable about corruption.
I predict The Ides of March will be shown in classrooms in a few years' time.
CRAVEONLINE RATING: 8 out of 10.