The Ides of March: George Clooney's season of truth
Truth in politics is the topic sentence in the new film The Ides of March, but the body of the film is about the utter lack of truth or, more to the point, how the whittling down of truth to something manageable—ethical compromise for instance—sustains what we call government in our country. The summarizing sentence in this quietly devastating essay of a movie is definitive: honesty is the last refuge of a man without a job.
The entire structure of The Ides of March is built upon the whispery gusts of lies. Lies told between friends, co-workers, lovers, the voters and the vote-getters. The movie takes place over a few days before a Democratic presidential primary in Ohio, a seemingly insubstantial stage for a film bright with the directorial and acting wattage of George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright. Why not the race for the presidency itself? Why not a topical thriller outfitted with the go-to dramatics of terrorism, economic meltdown and the teeth-baring rage of Tea Partiers vs. Occupy Wall Streeters? Why did Clooney choose to make a small film about what is arguably the most important subject of our time?
Why? Because it is exactly the “smallness” of this film that allows Clooney to tunnel into details most films ignore. Working with co-writers Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, upon whose play the film is based, Clooney’s strategy intends to illuminate a profound dysfunction of our democracy. The Ides of March dissects the process in which seemingly tiny errors in judgment come to define a person's integrity or ethical character for the rest of their lives and how the rationalization and cover-up of those errors come early in a career. It's a depressing reduction. Principled men become shifty hacks. True believers become cynical enablers. “Yes we can” becomes “It depends.”
Clooney, in a supporting role, plays an Ohio governor who speaks with the gold-hearted ethos of Barack Obama but possesses the tragic duality of John Edwards. Hoffman is his campaign manager, experienced both at demanding loyalty and undercutting it. Gosling is the sharp, guileless newbie, the true patriot in Clooney’s war on the intellectual attrition of American voters. Wood is the striving intern, already too good at her job who, along with Giamatti, places Gosling in a predicament in which the only way out is via a deal with the devil. Wright is the dubious long-standing senator whose only currency is influence.
Clooney’s directorial method is to avoid the obvious and the visceral, to turn away from the patterns we expect from our political cinema, a disappearing breed to be sure, and to register the fissures that erupt in a character’s belief system by focusing intently on their face. Watch for Clooney’s barely perceptible swallow when he realizes he’s trapped; or Wood’s agony when confronted with a shattering embarrassment; or Gosling’s wary bluff for the higher ground. Stylistically, the movie is not a throwback to the ‘70s era films Clooney loves, but it does mine the seriousness of those films. Details matter, because they add up to telling qualities of character. Trust may be a negotiating point among the political insiders of the film, but Clooney places an implicit trust in his audience to follow the nuances of his measured approach.
The Ides of March asks important questions about our culpability in creating the leaders we embrace. It ends at precisely the point where other films swivel into their third act to neatly tie up loose ends, indict the villains and validate the heroes. The film, smart and invigorating and sad, dares to say that perhaps, where the world of politics is concerned, the deception begins when we look in our own mirrors.