The Ides of March displays a sense of recent post-Obama disillusionment and largely deals with the loss of a young political advisor’s ideals and the impossibility of making worthwhile change in the current political system. It also pleasingly harks back to the brilliant The Best Man and Advise and Consent.
Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, press secretary to Governor Mike Morris (played by George Clooney, who also directs), an apparently sincere Democratic and Obama surrogate. Meyers believes that Morris is the best man to run the country, precisely because he is honest and committed to doing the right thing. However, as the race for a presidential nomination heats up, Meyers’ beliefs and ideals blow up in his face as he comes across dirty secrets and corrupt backroom deals.
To the wary eye, trained on Armando Iannucci’s scathing and hilarious The Thick of It and its spin-off In The Loop, Meyers’ idealism seems entirely naïve and Gosling’s performance slightly unbelievable. The Ides of March initially seems like it might be a silly though sincere attempt to persuade a jaded audience that politics is good and that it works. Which is why it is really rather effective when it becomes a bleak movie about the impossibility of good coming from within the current system. Though it doesn’t go to the extremes of Iannucci, who can get a bit depressing at his most powerful, The Ides of March is surprisingly glum, especially for a Hollywood movie, and even has moments of wry satire. Unlike The Rum Diary, there is no third-act redemption to undercut the power of its critique.
That said, it remains a Hollywood movie. The film is saddled with a few creaky plot manoeuvres and constantly threatens to wrong-foot itself, most awkwardly in the figure of Evan Rachel Wood. Her character becomes little more than a plot point after a rather good start, something the film’s odd conclusion seems to apologize for. At the film’s end, an intern is introduced with the aim of exposing their casual exploitation during a political campaign. This is an odd criticism in a film that deals with much more serious forms of corruption and much more so in a film that also exploits the intern to develop its convoluted plot.
Another problem lies in the film’s rather disappointing move from sober political drama into a somewhat overblown political thriller. After a confident though befuddled beginning, Gosling reverts to The Driver and is given to brooding and walking down corridors with a stone face. The thriller elements are what threaten a descent into silliness, which, admittedly, the film does manage to largely avoid. However, it is hard to believe that politics can be this exciting and devious in the real world. Iannucci gets away with it because he uses exaggeration for the purposes of comedy. A seemingly realistic film like The Ides of March can’t help but look over the top if it exaggerates.
It is a mark of a film having worked when, if it stumbles, you are genuinely worried for it. The Ides of March, despite its flaws, manages to create enough good will to see it through to the end. Though it may be unsure about what tone to take, it remains a surprisingly biting, if not angry, film with mostly great performances, especially Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman. As well as that, it has a point to make and, for once, it makes it well.