A procedural on the political manipulation of medium and message, George Clooney's fourth directorial effort is bookended with scenes of media-op prepping. In the first, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), a 30-year-old campaign advisor to Democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney), fills in for his boss at the sound check for a televised debate leading up to a queasily close Ohio primary. Stephen runs through lines from the candidate's bluff-heavy speech, suggesting that anyone who doesn't buy Morris' political and religious credentials shouldn't vote for him, and concludes with his own glib ad-lib: "Whatever you do, don't vote for me." As Stephen is transformed from naive believer to cynic with all-too-intimate sausage-factory experience, the film's ironic tone moves from relatively harmless spoken joke to insidious unspoken subtext, so that, as Stephen mikes up to comment on another speech in the film's final moments, in which the candidate drops words such as "dignity" and "integrity," we're meant to read painful moral conflict and compromise onto Gosling's expressionless face.
Scripted by Clooney, his long-time partner Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, The Ides of March is a loose adaptation of Farragut North, a 2008 play by Willimon, who spent his 20s working on campaigns for Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean. In the play, the candidate played by Clooney was spoken of but never appeared onstage. In the film, he's an active, necessary player in behind-the-campaign intrigue involving Stephen, his mentor (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a competing candidate's top aide (Paul Giamatti) and a tempestuous, barely legal sexpot intern (Evan Rachel Wood).
But Clooney's movie-star bona fides also provide a crucial face for Ides' investigation of idolatry and of Morris as the charismatic politician who woos like a heartthrob, both literally and figuratively. Marisa Tomei, as a flirty, vicious political reporter, warns Stephen to be wary of his boss in the language and cadence of an embittered older sister talking to a schoolgirl about her first boyfriend: "He's a nice guy. They're all nice guys. He'll let you down sooner or later." Meanwhile, Giamatti's character couches Stephen's talent for spin (and, as it will later be revealed, his own) as a kind of devious seduction, praising "the ability to earn people's respect by making them mistake their fear for love."
In this toxic cauldron of cross-motives, actual love can't exist, a fact of life that not even Wood's immature intern, whose cheerful fuckability ignites disaster, can deny. But Ides is unmistakably a tale of romantic coming-of-age. A genuine idealist when we meet him, happily, guilelessly evangelizing Morris' "Kool-Aid," Stephen's arc is over when his heart has fully hardened. Here, as in last month's Drive, Gosling's blankness contains multitudes. As a main character dies, heroes are cut down to size, and a bittersweet face-saving revenge gambit is put into motion, the actor's gorgeous mug becomes increasingly poker-ready, eventually locked in a deceptively placid, dangerously unreadable, quarter-smile come-on. No wonder he's made the "face of the campaign."
Compelling enough as a methodic moral inquiry, a step-by-step account of how lines in the sand move, Ides is less successful when attempting to capture the feeling of the times. Transparently haunted by the crash of Obamamania (for better or for worse, the takeaway image of this rarely visually interesting film is of a dead-eyed Gosling surrounded by Clooney's face on Fairey-esque screen prints selling the slogan "Believe"), Ides is too melancholic to mount an actual political argument — it's more like public wound-licking. Any nod to our real of-the-moment disillusionment dissolves into soapy plot contortions, with a sex scandal begetting backstabbing and blackmail, necessitating secret rendezvous in darkened stairwells and the kitchens of closed restaurants.
For all of the timely questions rumbling through Clooney's film — Is change even possible? Does a "good" man stand a chance once incorporated into a hopelessly "bad" system? — Ides of March cushions the end of idealism within noir fantasy. A truly devastating indictment of contemporary politics would simply show what happens when the "Believe" candidate gets elected and then actually tries to do the job.