George Clooney's latest directorial effort, the political thriller Ides of March, paints a dark picture of modern-day politics: a puppet show driven by the lust for power, masquerading behind the veneer of democratic ideals, reliant on seductive presentation to dupe the masses.
The film itself is also an apt cinematic equivalent of these principles, for as much as it accurately indulges current public sentiment, it does so with one eye firmly on award season. Clooney wishes to make himself a contender in the same way his character, Mike Morris, aims to be elected the Democratic candidate for the next presidential race. Furthermore, just like political parties repackage the same ideas into new boxes, Ides of March presents the loss of idealism from the perspective of the puppeteer in the shadows - the committed, precociously talented press secretary Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling). In the end however, it is the age old message about the manipulation of honesty, loyalty and pure intentions that resonates loudest.
This is unsurprising - the film is an adaptation of the Beau Willimon play Farragut North, loosely based upon the 2004 Democratic primary campaign of Howard Dean. On the one hand this affords the film a contemporary edge, but on the other enforces melodramatic tendencies that ultimately constrict its broader ambitions.
Either way, this context gives the film its greatest credibility. Rather than highlight moral corruption per se, it strives to prove how idealism is bludgeoned into submission despite all individual attempts to the contrary. Meyers lies in the twilight zone; at 30, he is caught between youthful ambition and wearied acceptance of the status quo. This naivety means that despite his exceptional skills as a spin doctor, he is loaded with volatile potential but recognised as an undoubted game-changer by the more experienced old-time campaign managers: be it Morris's own, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) or Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who fronts the opposing Democratic campaign. Indeed, the narrative is driven by the newcomers, Mayers and the femme fatale intern (Evan Rachel Wood) realising their disposable place within the system; to survive, let alone win, you must play by its rules. Therefore, by taking for granted the cynical reality of the pursuit of power from the outset, the film respects its audience. On top of this, the undertones of recent political history, specifically the Obama 08 campaign, help to make the movie instantly relevant and relatable.
Equally as inviting are the performances. Clooney is fittingly presidential, Hoffman excellent as the embattled campaigner and Giamatti suitably Machiavellian. Yet, the film hinges on Gosling's excellent portrayal of Meyers who alongside Rachel Wood, convincingly play characters caught unguarded in the no-man's-land of premier level politics. This is complimented by Clooney's seductive direction - littered with symbolic imagery that emphasises the contrast between public persona and backroom reality. One pivotal scene sees Zara and Meyer's dark shadows sillouted against a vast American flag. As they scramble, we hear Morris the other-side, giving a speech to great adulation but little substance.
Except, here is the problem. All the constituent elements are executed flawlessly, Ides of March suits up well, smiles for the cameras, talks the talk and walks the walk. At the time it is intoxicatingand enthralling. Ultimately though, after it gives its speech you are left wondering what new perspectives it actually offers; in hindsight it appears the answer is: not much. Unfortunately, the film spends most of its time trying to distract from that fact.
Rating: 7 out of 10