Beau Willimon worked on Howard Dean's doomed-from-the-start 2004 presidential campaign. A year later he mined the experience to write "Farragut North," a play about a young media consultant working on a presidential campaign, whose libido and vanity land him in a heap of trouble. George Clooney has now adapted that play into the feature film "Ides of March." Watching the movie, one shudders to think just how ugly democracy can get backstage.
Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Myers, a 30-year-old political wunderkind working on the presidential campaign of Ohio Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney), a progressive who's sworn to do things the right way, without selling out or trading favors—the man is a boy scout. When Stephen one day gets a call from Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), manager of the opposition campaign, who asks him to join him for a beer, Stephen accepts against his better judgment.
Around the same time, Stephen gets another invitation, of a very different sort, from the infinitely more attractive Molly Stearns, an intern on the Morris campaign, who also happens to be the daughter of the Democratic National Committee head. Suffice to say, things get ugly fast for Stephen, who at first thinks he's playing chess against grizzled masters only to find he's actually just a pawn in their game.
This is Gosling's third lead role of the year, coming after his Lothario in "Crazy Stupid Love" and his laconic stunt driver/getaway man in "Drive". Throw this into the mix, and one is left wondering if there's a 21st Century part he can’t play. In addition to bringing his occasionally hypnotic focus to the film, Gosling even manages to ditch the Brooklyn-ese accent that sometimes bleeds into his readings.
This is Clooney's fourth directorial effort, and he continues to develop a more assured eye, one that has clearly been informed by the political thrillers of the '60s and '70s: the off-center framing; the three-planes deep action of a busy office; a nervously twisting torso at a phone booth.
The film's only weakness is that as director, Clooney plays things a little too cool, not letting the action pop as sharply as he might. He's assembled one of the best casts of the year, a collection of men and women who can handle drama at its most dizzying, why he doesn't unleash the fury or heighten the tension is a mystery. Arguably the most explosive scene in the film is one that takes place off-screen and that we hear about only after the fact.
Nonetheless, "Ides of March" is a gripping game of cat-and-mouse, a bleak view of how the political sausage gets made and a cautionary tale about hubris all rolled into one.