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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Ides of March

The Ides of March (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: George Clooney, 2011
Why in Great Caesar’s Ghost did George Clooney make a movie like The Ides of March now? That question kept needling me as I tried to enjoy this suave but dispiriting drama about a Democratic presidential primary gone rotten. I could never really figure it out.
You tell me. Why would a famous Hollywood liberal — when we’re in the midst of all-out dirty-as-hell political warfare between big corporation right wing Republicans and share-the-wealth left-wing Democrats on Capitol Hill — give us a show about presidential electoral politics where almost all the Democrats are corrupt or flawed, and  where the whole movie is built around the unsentimental education of the one idealistic young liberal character (Ryan Gosling as Stephen Myers, press secretary for a seeming shining knight liberal candidate Mike Morris, played by Clooney), into how to be a political scumbag, backstab and circumvent the law — and where all the Republicans are offstage, though at one point they’re briefly described as better at being better, tougher scumbags than the Democrats.
Is it the truth? Maybe, partly. But it’s not much fun, or even instructive, to watch a movie story like that, especially now, unless it’s funny or scary. And The Ides of March isn’t either. Shot like a neo-noir, dropped into pools of ink-black shadow by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael,

it;s a movie that strives hard to be like a classic social message drama by Rod Serling, Reginald Rose or Gore Vidal, or, to choose later examples, Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet. But its aspiration are like the political campaign described here: flawed by cynicism, hamstrung by formula.

It starts well. Clooney’s Mike Morris is a Democratic Pennsylvania governor running for President, a dreamboat liberal candidate up against some unnamed, undescribed Republican. He has a more centrist opponent, Senator Pullman (Mike Mantell), of Arkansas yet, plus another opponent dropping out, Jeffrey Wright as North Carolina Senator Thompson. Thompson has some votes and pledges he might trade for a cabinet post, and both Morris and Pullman are jockeying for them.
Morris also has a savvy, scarred campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a rising young star in press secretary Myers. Myers, played by Gosling with his usual held-back inwardess and subtlety,  worships and serves Morris in the way Ted Sorenson might have adulated John Kennedy — when suddenly his world falls apart. Pullman’s campaign head, sly Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), offers him a job. Zara finds out and fires him, but not before Myers gets seduced by an intern, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), who’s also the daughter of the Democratic Party chairman, and who has a red-hot secret that will blow the whole campaign open.
Does all that sound like something you might read in a supermarket tabloid? The Ides of March makes it classier than the tabloid would, but perhaps less credible — perhaps simply because it seems classier than its material.

It’s puzzling. If Clooney, an actor and filmmaker I usually enjoy and admire, wanted to make or score political points, he and his topflight cast and colleagues are maybe making the wrong points at the wrong time. And if he simply wanted to make a really good movie, however the political chips fell ( a laudable enough goal), he may have picked the wrong material. Beau Willimon, who wrote the play “Farragut North,” (the title comes from a Washington Metro stop), the source on which Ides of March is based, is an ex-aide to Democratic presidential candidate (and later party chairman) Howard Dean, and he has both an insider’s cynicism, and maybe an insider‘s tendency to overly inflate or deflate or deglamorize his subjects.

I haven’t read or seen “Farragut North,” which was adapted into The Ides of March by co-writers Willimon, Clooney and Grant Heslov, with Clooney directing, but the movie that somehow came out of it is so stuffed with wild melodrama, improbable coincidences, and unlikely plot twists that only the classiness of the cast and direction, and the relative literacy and sobriety of the whole enterprise, keeps it from tipping over into political camp — which might have been preferable.
I think Clooney’s timing may have been poor here. In the midst of a real-life Washington battle that pits an idealistic leftist, well-financed Democratic president (Barack Obama), against a hard-nosed, well-financed Republican congress trying to tear him apart, Democrat Clooney — and, I assume, a largely Democratic cast and production staff — come out with a show that portrays most of its Democratic characters as devious, amoral, or worse, and takes no real shots at Republicans except to treat them as the monsters offstage.
Michael Ritchie and star Robert Redford’s 1972 The Candidate — which bears a certain family resemblance to The Ides of March (and was also written by an ex-Democratic campaign staffer, Jeremy Larner) — is often cited as the exemplary movie about American political campaigns. But I prefer Franklin Schaffner and Vidal’s The Best Man (with liberal candidate Henry Fonda sabotaging his conservative opponent, Cliff Robertson, so a compromise candidate will win). The Best Man is about as melodramatic as Ides of March, but it’s better written and more enjoyable — largely because Fonda, whom the movie makes clear is the best man, does prevail, even if he doesn’t win.
The tabloid antics of Ides of March aren’t as plausible or as much fun. Bill Clinton (and his intern) and John Edwards (and his affair and betrayal) have to some degree blazed a real-life trail here. But this movie trumps them both — besides giving us a resolution so preposterous that, as some critics have already suggested, The Ides of March might only really work as satire, or dark farce.
Instead, The Ides of March treats Myers as totally serious and the most important character in the film, which would probably work better if Myers were more of an observer and less of a star (or rising star) participant. The movie offers us violent death, abortion, political corruption and double-crosses, and gives us an ending that doesn’t make much sense — all delivered by a cast so good, top to bottom to middle that they almost pull it off. (In addition to the others, Jennifer Ehle plays Morris‘s wife, Max Minghella plays another ambitious politico, and Marisa Tomei of The New York Times is one of the few visible reporters — a cynical one too, of course.) The Ides of March does, in the end, have something substantial to offer: not the script, nor its political perceptions — which are acid, but hardly new — but that brilliant cast, putting more conviction into these unlikely situations than you might have dreamed possible.
I would have been happier if Clooney and his fellow writers had performed some really radical surgery on Willimon’s play and turned all the Democrats into Republicans. I wouldn‘t have admired the movie any more as a movie maybe, but at least I would have enjoyed it — and actually, relatively little would have had to be changed in the script except for the candidates’ talking points. Clooney’s Morris is for the environment, for gay marriage, against war, and he refuses to profess any religion. (He says the U. S. Constitution is his sacred text.) But he could just as well have been for big oil, against planned parenthood, and for huge tax cuts and dismantling social security and Medicare, and an Evangelical deacon. (He could even have kept the last part of that Constitution line.)
Often The Ides of March seems to be taking place three or four years ago, before Obama was elected. (Clooney is said to have delayed the project when that election happened; maybe he should have put it on permanent hold.) And by the way, what is the point of the title? Yeah, yeah, I know: crooked politics, treachery…But I don’t see any analogies here to Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” from whence the Ides came. And, if there are any (Clooney as Caesar? Gosling as Marc Antony? Hoffman as Cassius?) they evaporate fast.
So does the movie. Part of the problem with The Ides of March, is not that it savages Democrats, but that it lets the Republicans off the hook — except at one point when they’re described as smarter and tougher than the Dems. (Meant partly as an insult, but does the audience take it that way?) I don’t know if I agree with that sentiment anyway — but the G. O. P. and its schemers and strategists and media planners are definitely smart enough not to release movies like The Ides of March, in presidential primary season, when the real-life political situation seem so radically different, so radically bad.
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10 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: The Ides of March”

  1. Rodrigo Burgos says:

    I watched the movie last night and left with a lot of questions that your article answers. I was convinced Clooney was a liberal, but left wondering if he belonged to the Tea Party.
    My conclusion is that George Clooney must have sold onto big oil, corporate greed and republicans, making some kind of crooked deal as the ones portraid in his movie.
    This is the only explanation i can think of. I can understand being disappointed with Obama and a lot of the decisions he has -or has not- made lately (environment, taxes, immigtation). But it is also true that he has faced an optuse congress fixed at reversing any inicitive that would help us get out of this mess and driven only by ambition. This movie will futher disingage liberal voters. And the option is more denial of global warming (broadly accepted as a fact in Asia,Europe and Southamerica), social conservatism, politics serving corporations and the rich.
    If you watch the movie, please rate it really bad.

  2. Keil Shults says:

    So you’re either liberal or in the tea party? You people are such idiots. If this film were about flawed Republicans, this article would not exist. Thankfully few people are as bored as I must be to resort to reading a mediocre nobody like Wilmington.

  3. Michael Mayo says:

    Mike Wilimgton is a smart film writer (have been reading him a long time now) but yet another political naif who divides the world into noble Democrats and Morlock Republicans, and can’t understand what happened to the God they elected, now that he’s turned out to be not only a mere mortal, but a pretty nasty, petty, unimaginative, and untalented one at that. I haven’t seen the film yet, but give Clooney props for trying to reconcile the endless My Pretty Pony political delusions of Democrats with the harsh reality that most politicians (of both parties) are in it to get elected and will do whatever it takes to get elected and stay in office. I like Clooney as a director (even if he does seem a little stuck in the late fifties tv drama era)and respect he’s willing to test his political ideals against opposing ideas and situations; so its very funny listening to people like Wilmington squeeking that George isn’t helping the party line. Got news for Mike – nothing’s going to help the party line since it’s built on nothing sustainable in reality. Gotta wonder if Clooney, who seems an actual adult, is slowly coming to realize that…

  4. Pat Dunn says:

    I saw the movie yesterday and actually expected more of these substantial actors.

    However, i did miss the last line when Gosling was listening with an earplug to something about Senator Thompson & his Delegates. Would you be so kind to fill me in….I was so mad….couldn’t understand what was said? I do think Gosling has certainly grown into a fine actor & hope to see more of him.

    Pat Dunn

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  6. Michael says:

    I just saw Ides Of March and I was blown away with it was all set to brag about it to all my friends and relatives about how great this film was. But finally when the end came I was like, “what the heck?” I can’t believe how weird the ending is and I don’t even know what the heck happened. I came to your site and saw a review but no explanation. Ok there’s somewhat of a spoiler alert I still don’t know what happened! So what happened??

  7. Carol says:

    I feel, Gosslig was gonna tell all on Clooney at the end of the movie .I was soooo glad …

  8. Jillian says:

    Michael, I feel the same way about the end. I was getting the impression that he was going to tell all, but am unsure and have been going back and forth about it.

  9. I give the movie a 7/10. I liked everything except the sexual content. The violence made me cringe though.

  10. MOO says:

    Isn’t it a bit ironic when you make a movie about loosing your idealism and then you make the movie in the most ordinary, by the book way. I used to like Clooney, these days I can’t help it, I just find him pathetic.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon