The presidential candidate George Clooney plays in The Ides of March seems too good to be true. Intelligent, handsome and charming, Governor Mike Morris also has all the right answers to questions posed in interviews and at debates. He makes his position clear on foreign policy, gun crime, the death penalty and abortion – in each case, offering thoughtful, compassionate arguments – and he refuses to let religion cloud the issue, telling the crowd at one debate that, "My religion is a piece of paper – the Constitution of the United States of America." Of course, if something seems too good to be true then it probably is, and the dramatic twist at the heart of The Ides of March concern Morris's unwise dalliance with a young intern (Evan Rachel Wood) and what damage it might do to the campaign. "You can lie, you can cheat, you can start a war, you can bankrupt the country," the governor's aide Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) explains, "but you can't fuck the intern."
Meyers, rather than Morris, is the main protagonist in Clooney's film, an adaptation of Beau Willimon's stage play Farragut North. Meyers is an idealist whose passions are stirred by the bright future that Morris heralds, but as we all know, politics is a grubby business, and The Ides of March is about his youthful optimism and naïveté coming up against cynicism of political machinations. The older aide Meyers works alongside, Philip Seymour Hoffman's Paul Zara, knows how to play this game all too well, with he and his Republican counterpart Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) personifying the bitter, jaded mood of men who have spent a lifetime fighting dirty. Early on in the film Hoffman and Giamatti share a great scene behind the stage at a televised debate, with the pair sniping at each other like the old pros they are, and I'd like to have seen more of that in the film. Instead, The Ides of March focuses on Meyers' growing disillusionment with and eventual manipulation of Morris, hence the film's rather obvious title.
The Ides of March works as a perfectly enjoyable political yarn but it exists totally on the surface. As in Drive, Gosling suggests a kind of blankness rather than the depth or conflict that his directors are clearly searching for in those lingering close-ups. His character arc is predictable but Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov do throw in a couple of neat twists that liven the narrative up (even if they make Evan Rachel Wood little more than a sacrificial lamb, tossed aside in an offhand manner), and as a director he ensures the film is always slick, efficient and entertaining. What the film ultimately lacks is a genuine sense of cynicism or a darkness at its heart, or perhaps a real sense of consequence to the actions that the characters take. Clooney's attempt to expose the moral corruption at the centre of American politics feels a bit tentative, and it's why The Ides of March only plays as a diverting drama rather than a memorable one.