*. For a movie that takes its title (for no very good reason) from one of the most famous dates in history, here are some other dates that are important. The Ides of March is based on a play by Beau Willimon (who co-wrote the screenplay) called Farragut North which debuted in 2008 but was written in 2005. Pre-Obama, in other words, and well before Trump and our elevated levels of scandal fatigue.
*. This is important because post-Trump a movie about the cynicism and corrupting power of politics seems hopelessly naive. But then seeing any political drama through the lens of what would impact America’s politics starting in 2016 leads to a similar distortion. Even later, more historically-grounded films like Vice and The Front Runner suffer from this Trump effect.
*. But more than that, many of the plot points here seem decades out of touch with reality even for 2011. The candidate (George Clooney, glossy in a part that only calls for being glossy) has slept with an intern (Evan Rachel Wood), which results in her becoming pregnant. This means she has to get an abortion, which is a problem because, you know, she’s Catholic. And to pay for it, the deputy campaign chair (Ryan Gosling) has to take money out of the candidate’s slush fund. Because, apparently, he can’t come up with $900 bucks on his own.
*. Then there is the issue over rising star Stephen Meyers (Gosling) meeting with the campaign manager of the other side, a seemingly innocent get-together that will apparently blow up if the media gets hold of the story. It also eventually leads to him being fired. Why? People from opposing campaigns really don’t speak to each other?
*. Peter Rainer: “The film is actually fairly entertaining once you get past its overweening desire to be the bearer of bad tidings. A more adventuresome movie would have treated the down-and-dirty world of politics as its starting, not its ending, point.” The ironic rise of Stephen Meyers, through his loss of idealism, might have worked in the 1950s, but in our cynical century it just doesn’t have any traction.
*. A bias alert: I don’t warm to Ryan Gosling. I think this is mostly his fault. He played a consummate but totally blank professional in Drive. He played an android in Blade Runner 2049. In a role that would seem to call for something more he is again a robotic, blank, professional here. To the extent that director Clooney has to paint the tears on his face by way of the rain-on-the-window trick from In Cold Blood. In short, this is a guy who looks like he’s already sold his soul as the movie begins, which doesn’t leave him with much of an arc to travel.
*. I mentioned that it’s based on a play. If you didn’t know that you might be able to guess by something Christopher Orr points out: “In keeping with its high-minded tenor, the film unrolls nearly every scene a beat too slowly. This is a movie about the hurly-burly of modern campaigns in which every character’s lines are precise, deliberate, rehearsed. There are no interjections or interruptions, no half-thoughts or thoughts quickly amended. Most absurd, regardless of where a scene is set — a trendy bar, a crowded campaign office — there’s virtually no background noise, nothing that might interfere with the morally fraught declarations that cast members trade at every opportunity. Even the occasional stabs at humor — some of them not at all bad — are followed by polite pauses, evidently so that audiences can compose themselves without missing anything.”
*. What Orr is describing is a filmed play, one of the distinguishing characteristics of which is the way the director doesn’t want to mess with the script. This makes no sense to me here because five minutes after it was over I couldn’t remember any of the lines they didn’t want me to miss. A movie like this needed more of a jolt. Instead it chooses to downplay the drama. One big scene is even completely obscured, as Philip Seymour Hoffman is ditched in an alley after being fired behind the dark windows of Clooney the candidate’s SUV. That’s a defensible directorial decision, and I actually thought it was kind of interesting, but the whole movie plays like this. Evan Rachel Wood’s breakdown, to take another example, is only played back as a recorded phone message.
*. Judged on its own this is a decent little drama that gets off to a slow start but finishes up well, if not unexpectedly. Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are good as the old pols, more real than the stars they manufacture. But even the war-room angle is nothing new. We live in a time when jaded doesn’t even begin to describe our attitude toward politicians. I think most of us have given up hope in them entirely. This being the case, these Ides of March come too late to stand either as a warning or a post mortem.