Review by Ryan Wilson

The big challenge in making a political drama: get too close to actual political events and you run the risk of being overshadowed by history, but get too far away from those events and whatever smart critique you’re offering can feel too ethereal. Funny how George Clooney’s new political film The Ides of March is concurrently too close and too far away to resonate.

It’s too close because Clooney’s fictitious candidate first appears to be a movie version of Barack Obama, circa the 2008 election. He’s a charismatic idealist as he weathers a tough primary challenge in the always schizophrenic state of Ohio. Clooney’s candidate’s poster even looks like Shepard Fairey’s Obama ‘08 design. Clooney presents his character as not necessarily the candidate to win, but the candidate seemingly unwilling to compromise, a luxury of any candidate because, as we’ve seen all summer, once in office this attitude can turn potentially damaging.

But I digress…

Democrats currently disenchanted with Obama might sit through the first third of the film and feel even more disenchantment, as Clooney’s candidate speechifies and electrifies his fictitious base in a way their real candidate hasn’t in over three years. Republicans, meanwhile, might likely accuse the first third of the film of being Clooney’s personal 2012 campaign ad for Obama, as his character reinforces nearly every view progressive democrats have from gay marriage to taxing the super-wealthy. Personally, I was sort of fascinated with these early sequences of the film because it seems somehow ahead of pundits and pollsters, as if Clooney were making some sort of comment on political messaging and what it takes to swing voters.

But wait. Somewhere near the mid-point of the story the plot turns sensational, as politics no doubt can. Instead of Obama, Clooney’s candidate begins to resemble the worst personal shades of Bill Clinton, which might make Republicans sit up. By the climax his character is in a full-blown John Edwards ethical spiral, which is so desperate and unattractive that it may even make Republicans applaud.

The fact that I dislike the second and third acts of the film has nothing to do with my politics, so much as my aversion to the easy narrative and directorial choices Clooney makes.

While it’s appropriate that most of the action is seen through the eyes of protagonist Ryan Gosling, who plays one of Clooney’s campaign managers, so hungry for victory that he’s lost any sort of moral principle, it’s also a bad choice because Gosling’s character offers so little to like. Not that I expect to like the major players in a political drama. But I at least want to feel the fall from grace, and Gosling’s campaign manager feels too compromised from the minute we meet him. When he succumbs to the dark side of the political world, it’s of little surprise.

Picking up the slack are two dueling and less naive campaign managers played wonderfully by two of the best character actors around. Philip Seymour Hofman and Paul Giamatti. These guys, with their big mouths and big guts, seem to embody the strange bedfellows that are necessary to make a large campaign work. Less polished, these two dominate the screen when they get a chance, and the biggest shame of the film is that they never get a scene together.

In the end my largest complaint with The Ides of March isn’t its content or characters so much as its form. I just expect political dramas to add a little something extra to the mix aside from a twisting tale of moral turbulence. I want the irony of 1972’s The Candidate or the full-blown satire in the form of a documentary of 1992’s Bob Roberts. We can see politics played straight each night on cable television if we so choose, so filmmakers need to add more than just the usual drama to their dramas. While watching the film I kept thinking about 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, which blends the genres of a political film with a thriller. Clooney seems to have that impulse late in The Ides of March, but he does little visually to pull that off. The strength of The Manchurian Candidate isn’t its conspiracy story but the extra messages audiences take along the way, most notably in heavily ironic images of Lincoln. There you have a film commenting on the era of McCarthyism while also offering a cinematic subtext.

Clooney’s timeliness, meanwhile, is all surface, and a cynical surface at that. At a time when the American voter is nothing but cynical about the political system, The Ides of March only reinforces what we already know. Which leaves me with only one predictable response: et tu, George?

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011