The Ides of March, George Clooney’s adaptation of the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, is the kind of movie that will be mistaken for a profound meditation on the state of American politics. This strikes me as deeply unfortunate, not just because it’s not a particularly good movie, but because what few ideas it has back up a reactionary idea of what makes someone good at governing. Spoilers to follow.
Gov. Mike Morris, the Democratic frontrunner, may be the silliest Hollywood conception of a politician since The American President. He is, apparently, a veteran of President Bush’s Gulf War, an opponent of President Bush’s son’s incursions into the same reason, a genius who’s managed to dramatically improve the educational performance of Pennsylvania students (take that, skeptics of education reform!) and balance his state’s budget in a recession. When he’s asked about how he’d feel about the death penalty if his wife (the always welcome but woefully under-used Jennifer Ehle) were murdered, Morris says he’d kill the killer himself and then accept the consequences. These are no positions that have a basis in political reality. If Andrew Shepherd’s speech and declaration of ACLU membership in The American President is a parody of liberal dreams of progressive toughness
the idea that a candidate could declare in a debate “I’m not a Christian…my religion, what i believe in, is called the Constitution of the United States of America,” and win over an electorate that isn’t even close to electing a Jewish president, that’s skeptical of a Mormon, much less an atheist, is just woefully out of touch. Saying, as one character does, that “we know they’ve nominated a jackass,” in response to a question about whether Democrats have nominated an atheist is not an answer to that plausibility problem. It’s just smug.
Morris is a paper man, composed of position papers rather than blood and guts, and that’s a problem when we’re supposed to believe that a moment of marital infidelity is utterly damning. We have no idea what his relationship with his wife is like. If the movie made an argument that Morris’ relationship with his family is a repudiation of an idea that Christianity is a necessary guarantor of values, his decision to sleep with an intern might be momentous. Joe Klein’s Primary Colors and the movie adaptation of the novel made the argument that the emotional profligacy that led fictional candidate Jack Stanton to sleep around was also critical to his success because it bound potential supporters to him for life. But we have absolutely no sense of what Morris is like as a human being, so it’s hard to know what his infidelity means. Is his aura of control a facade? Was it just a stupid mistake? Do we actually want to promulgate the idea that your personal life is a litmus test for your ability to do meaningful political work?
That same sense of incoherence permeates the rest of the plot, which, like the worst stories, only moves forward when characters make implausibly stupid decisions, or the script evinces a basic misunderstanding of politics. The movie assumes, among other things, that the daughter of a party committee chairman would be allowed to work for one candidate in a competitive primary; that campaign managers have a lot of free time to meet up at bars with their opponents; that the manager of a national-level presidential campaign would have so little money that he needs to steal from the campaign’s petty cash fund; that someone dealing with a volatile threat to a campaign would just forget to pick that person up from an appointment; that the police are dumb enough to think that a call made from one character’s phone to another after the first character’s death proves the dead character called the living one; and that New York Times reporters routinely give their stories to Roll Call. All this incoherence means that a movie that wants to say damning things about the political system ends up, I’m sure not by design, having as its two most sympathetic characters the Democratic National Committee chairman and a fired campaign operative who sells out and starts a political consulting firm on K Street.
All this silliness might have been redeemed by some good performances, and as always, it’s hard to fault Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti, even though they’re both given very little to do. But I am not in the school of critics who sees much going on below the surface of Ryan Gosling’s performances, and he’s flat, petulant, and unstrategic here, a man who thinks he wants big, noble things, who turns out to want nothing but power. But it’s hard to care about his downfall because his initial enthusiasm seems more like a display he puts on for journalists than an actual embrace of integrity. And it turns out that a politician may be the one thing that Clooney can’t play particularly convincingly: he’s sour to the point of utter charmlessness here. A glint and a chin are helpful if you’re running for president, but they’re not only the whole package. Marisa Tomei is utterly wasted on a similarly one-dimensional portrait of an ambitious journalist.
The Ides of March will undoubtedly be taken quite seriously. People love to like George Clooney. But if you want a movie that sensitively explores the disappointment of philandering politicians, the relationship between operatives and the press, and the little things that make politics work, you’d do better to rent a 2008 romantic comedy that’s secretly the best political movie in quite some time. It’s called Definitely, Maybe.