‘The Ides of March’ plays politics better than usual

Like the charm-exuding candidate at the center of the imbroglio it depicts, George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” has little to say, but says it so winningly that you can’t help but approve as it advances through the campaign trail and the related jungle.

Clooney’s capable directing makes familiar political-thriller material absorbing and entertaining. A terrific cast sprinkles it with gold.

The movie, Clooney’s fourth big-screen directorial outing, is, like Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a morality story, in this case transpiring in cynical times, under drab Ohio skies.

Basically, the campaign-drama format receives a fresh batch of characters and headline-inspired particulars in this adaptation by Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, based on Willimon’s play, “Farragut North.”

The story centers on the loss of innocence of Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the dynamic 30-year-old press secretary for Mike Morris (Clooney), a Democratic governor who, thanks to his personal charisma and the speeches Stephen writes, has become a leading presidential contender without denying his progressive and agnostic (“The Constitution is my religion”) aspects.

Stephen believes in Morris; to quote scoop-hungry New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), he gets “goosebumpy” over him. To get Morris elected, he plays dirty.

Clooney aborts the political specifics and heads into mainstream terrain, where temptation occurs via power and sex.

Two veteran campaign operatives — rumpled Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who works for Morris, and devilish Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who handles Morris’ top rival — ruthlessly manipulate Stephen after Stephen reveals his own ambitions.

An entanglement with 20-year-old Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), an intern with an uh-oh quality and a secret, intensifies the thicket.

Sum total: betrayal, blackmail, revenge, a sex scandal and damage control.

Misleadingly titled, the movie isn’t Shakespearean. Clooney doesn’t achieve a tone of tragedy. We get no insight into the addictive world of politics. A plot turn involving Molly, who’s just a device of a character, sends the plot into ridiculous territory.

Yet while this doesn’t rank with politician dramas like “The Candidate” or David Mamet’s spin-master stories, Clooney has made an intelligent, entertaining Hollywood thriller, and that’s not a bad deal.

The tension, which revolves around who will and won’t sink, is constant. A face-off sequence crackles. The dialogue, while uneven, contains nuggets. Ditto for the visual touches.

Superb performances make even the weak material come alive. Gosling, whose resemblance to Clooney’s Morris seems not entirely coincidental, gives Stephen a magnetic brand of cool and efficiently conveys the slow eroding of Stephen’s soul.

Hoffman and Giamatti, both wonderful, provide a kick plus deeper thrills as their characters machinate. A scene in which these rival schemers eye each other with venomous antagonism achieves priceless status.

The stellar cast also includes an underused Geoffrey Wright, playing an influential senator.


The Ides of March ★★★

Starring Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Evan Rachel Wood

Written by
George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon

Directed by George Clooney

Rated R

Running time 1 hour 41 minutes

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