The Ides Of March Review: Et Tu Gosling?

THE IDES OF MARCH (12A): At The London Film Festival Wednesday 19th and Friday 22nd October. On General Release Friday 28th October.

President George Clooney.  President George Clooney.  Has a nice ring to it doesn’t it? That’s not an image that’s going to be dispelled any time soon as he co-wrote, directed and stars as a presidential candidate in The Ides Of March, a taut, slick political thriller with an excellent ensemble cast set against the backdrop of the run up to the American primaries.

Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, an ambitious press spokesman for Democratic candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney), a seemingly spotless model of integrity and decency alongside experienced campaign manager Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).  When the opposition’s canny manager (Paul Giamatti) attempts to poach him, Stephen finds himself in a quandary exacerbated by the affair he’s begun with a young intern (Evan Rachel Wood).

Ides features an outstanding ensemble cast and admirably high production values. Clooney the man has been so involved with politics over the years that it’s all too easy to imagine that Morris is merely a dramatic mouthpiece for Clooney’s own viewpoints; it’s eerily convincing.  Gosling is also outstanding, a fast-thinking but ultimately naïve manager, it’s another reminder of why he’s one of this year’s most celebrated stars.

Adding some much needed rough edges are Hoffman and Giamatti both of whom are their reliably excellent selves.  Giamatti in particular stands out having practically cornered the market in embittered cynicism.  Marisa Tomei makes a welcome appearance as a tenacious journalist – all too savvy to the machinations of political wrangling and Jeffrey Wright has a small but potent role as an opportunistic senator.

Clooney executes some visually interesting directorial flourishes; an achievement considering most of the film involves a great deal of talking. An early scene involving Meyers rehearsing Morris’s speech before Morris delivers it moments later is a particular highlight; another much later segment see Meyers and Zara argue in silhouette against the lighted backdrop of the American flag.

However, the film is far too simplistic to really have any significant dramatic weight.   Stephen is supposed to be a campaign manager with “more experience at 30 than most have at 40”. And yet, he’s still childishly naïve about his own business – are we supposed to believe that it’s taken him all this time to work out that politics is a dirty business?  Where was he during the Clinton administration?  Don’t press officers watch The West Wing?  Has he not read Primary Colors?

And when Stephen is burnt by the system, he executes such an abrupt Face/Heel turn it that borders on the ridiculous.  Added to that is a subplot in which the intern’s (inevitable) tragedy gets resolved and tied up far too neatly, unsatisfying in an age where you can probably Google what Barack Obama had for breakfast.  Ultimately, Ides is more of a personal than a political story – the focus is on Stephen, who’s forced to compromise his own principles to continue doing what he loves but it’s a tale that’s all too familiar.

Consequently, the supposedly big dramatic payoffs are predictable and don’t have the punch that they should have, the message boils down to “There’s no room for integrity in politics”.  Well duh, what’s next “Cigarettes cause lung cancer”? “Professional wrestling is fixed”?   Ides is effortlessly watchable but there’s a nagging feeling that there should be more. The cast are uniformly excellent and the direction assured, it’s just a shame that the script is as hollow as a presidential hopeful’s election promises.

Follow Jez Sands on Twitter.