The main difference between British and American politics is that, even within a two party system, US political campaigning is rife with viscious internal backbiting, especially during the presidential candidate primaries. This is brought to the fore in The Ides of March, where staffer Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) has to negotiate the donkey-infested waters of mudslinging, not only between the two Democratic candidates, but also within his own campaign team.
Mike Morris, George Clooney’s Clintonesque Governor, vying for a seat in the Oval Office, a seemingly clean cut figure , provides a fine veneer for the underhand dealings of his campaign manager,Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman),pulling more strings than a loom weaver to try to give his man a chance at the big chair. Hoffman plays the part with a calm servitude, a grizzled campaigner who never needs to raise his voice. Gosling’s understated portrayal of the brilliant young prodigy provides a flexible morality for the first half, his character successfully promoting his man and policies without sacrificing his scruples. As in his previous outing in Drive, Gosling’s performance dramatically switches to a passionately charged yet focused burst in the second half as Myers tries to deal with a drastic change in circumstances increasingly beyond his control.
Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon and Clooney’s screenplay (adapted from Willimon’s play, Farragut North) doesn’t have the snappy dialogue of similar political thrillers, such as Primary Colors but there is a subtle wit to the script that is relevant to modern US politics, with speeches peppered with soundbites such as: “[I believe in no religion apart from the] constitution of the United States of America”. There is also some political insight into why promoting National Service for 18 year olds is a vote winner as those affected would be ineligible to vote against it. The premise that a President of the United States can get away with anything- such as bringing a country to war or bankruptcy- apart from having sex with an intern, is also brought to our attention.
Clooney’s direction is skilled in its imagery. He highlights the power of manufactured pomp by having the same speech read to both an empty room and a crowd of chanting supporters. Back room machinations and blackmail are sometimes held in front of a looming Stars and Stripes and the weather is employed as an emotional barometer, Gosling at one point seen weeping through a beautifully lit, rain-spattered windscreen.
The Ides of March has plenty of classical tragedy and modern political backstabbing that lives up to the portentous date in its title. The moral centre seems to shift from character to character and then completely disappears by the end of the film, leaving behind a trail of innocent victims, which seems all too common in politics these days.