New on DVD: The Ides of March (2011)

Lots of us view George Clooney as a liberal white knight who really ought to run for office.

He sends us an answer of sorts with The Ides of March.

In this political thriller – Clooney directed and co-wrote it – the charismatic movie star plays a charismatic Democratic state governor who has thrown himself into a presidential primary.

Watching Clooney’s Mike Morris gracefully glide through debates, press conferences and stump speeches is a bit weird...it’s like a preview of what a genuine Clooney candidacy would be like.

The Morris campaign even has a poster depicting the candidate in the same pop art/street graffiti visual language of that famous Obama image from ’08. Lefties will be swooning.

But this candy apple has a razor blade hidden inside.

As it turns out, The Ides of March (a reference, of course, to the assassination of Julius Caesar), isn’t about Morris, who plays a pivotal but relatively minor role.

The central character here is Morris’ assistant campaign manager, young Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling, again!), a true believer who sees in Morris the perfect Democratic candidate.

“They’re all politicians,” warns a cynical political reporter (Marisa Tomei). “He will let you down sooner or later.”

It’s a prophetic line, and before it’s all over Ides becomes the story of one man’s loss of faith. Remember how in the course of The Godfather Al Pacino’s Michael went from idealist to ruthless gang boss? That’s what can happen when you dive head first into the Machiavellian bog of big-league politics.

Clooney has packed his cast with fantastic actors. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Paul Zara, Stephen’s boss and an old hand at behind-the-scenes manipulation. Paul Giamatti plays his scheming counterpart in the entourage of one of Morris’ political rivals.

Jeffrey Wright is a pompous U.S. Senator whose endorsement everybody wants (he’s demanding nothing less than a cabinet seat for his support). Jennifer Ehle is Morris’ perfect political wife.

And then there’s Evan Rachel Wood as Molly, a 20-year-old intern on the Morris campaign who is jaded way beyond her years. Against his better judgment Stephen strikes up sexual relationship with the young woman (who for all intents and purposes is his employee), setting off a chain of unforeseen upheavals, including a matter of life and death.

This is a world were everyone is constantly on guard, where every word is parsed for hidden meanings and vetted for political correctness. Small wonder most politicians seem phony – they’ve got staffs who are devoted to pre-set scenarios and terrified at the thought of spontaneous expression.

Gosling adds yet another memorable performance to his growing resume. What makes it all the more remarkable is that Stephen isn’t a particularly colorful character, yet Gosling imbues him with a drive and an intelligence that puts us in his corner (at least until we no longer want to be in his corner).

Moreover, he holds his own against scene stealers like Hoffman and Giamatti.

As director Clooney creates a smothering aura of ever-tightening tension coupled with a growing sense of moral revulsion.

My one beef with the film is that for it to end the way it does, the police investigating an apparent suicide have to be as inept as those jokers in Perugia, Italy. The whole movie could come crashing down around a prescription pill bottle, had anyone the good sense to check where it came from.

Despite that reservation, The Ides of March joins such classics as The Best Man and The Candidate in mucking around in the ugly underbelly of American politics. Its overall attitude is less cynicism than a sobering sadness...the lesson here is that nobody gets out without some blood on their hands.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.

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