There is a little more than a year until the 2012 Presidential Election, and campaign season is officially in full-swing as the Republican candidates' debates have become a near-weekly fixture on TV, and states have begun to jockey for position in a crowded primaries calendar. It is in the throes of this campaign season that we receive The Ides of March, the fourth feature film directed by George Clooney, which has as much to say about our culture as it does the our country's political system.
Much of the credit for Ides' success as a film is due the outstanding acting turned in by a superlative ensemble cast. Ryan Gosling anchors the film in his typically understated way, and Clooney (correctly) casts himself as a platonic liberal ideal of the guy who looks and sounds like he should be President. And since Clooney is nothing if not an actor's director, he manages to fill even the seemingly smallest parts in Ides with Academy-pedigreed performers and all-star bit players.
Marisa Tomei, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Jeffrey Wright all appear in supporting performances that mine the most from a sometimes stage-y script (adapted for the screen by Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon from Willimon's play Farragut North), and many otherwise exposition-heavy scenes are markedly stronger for their presences. And once it gets going in earnest, the film positively hums along as a watertight political thriller about a young media savant and rising star of party politics (Gosling), who is weighed down and eventually transformed by intrigue and scandal in a critical Ohio primary race. It is certainly a good film, and one that is elevated to possible greatness by both the aforementioned cast and Clooney's keen sense for the public's current perception of big-league politics.
It is in the latter respect that Ides most impresses. Consider the context: By the year 2000, the game of Character Assassination had fully matured in American politics. The blunt instruments of the previous decade—the Congressional obstinance, muckraking and impeachment that defined the Clinton years—set the tone for a new kind of warfare in the next presidential primary season. Karl Rove's multimedia smear campaign and push-polling techniques brought a surgical precision to undermining a candidate's image, one that slowly bled the McCain campaign out and delivered George W. Bush the GOP nomination for president. More than 10 years later, filmic portrayals of politics' "bloodsport-as-business" ethics are neither the revelation nor the spectacle they once were to the American public. In 2011, we so expect to see dirty pool rule the day that it's almost become a news item that default-Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney isn't under siege 24/7, answering questions about Mormonism.
Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of The Ides of March is the amount of genuine drama it wrings from characters doing pretty much exactly what our most cynical assumptions of them would dictate.
Contrast this with another actors' showpiece from not too long ago with similar subject matter (albeit a very different point of view), Rod Lurie's 2000 film The Contender. That film is about an honorable female senator (Joan Allen) who is nominated for the vacant office of Vice President of the United States by a second-term liberal president seeking to break the "glass ceiling" of American politics (Jeff Bridges), and the struggles she faces during her confirmation process as lead by a malicious conservative congressman (Gary Oldman). Both Bridges and Allen earned Oscar nominations for their performances, and the film placed well on many critics' lists of the year's best. Yet The Contender, while financially successful (it grossed nearly twice it's $9 budget), barely seemed to register on the cultural map with general audiences, despite being released in October of 2000 and at the fevered peak of what was then the closest-contested presidental race in American history. Meanwhile, The Ides of March grossed over $10 million as it debuted as the #2 in the country in its opening weekend.
It seems that these days people are more interested in seeing what they believe is a more realistic picture of the American political machine. In 2000, The Contender sought to surprise and uplift jaded audiences with its redemptive view of conviction and ideals as triumphing above all. Ten years later, The Ides Of March offers us the darker side of the story, lingering in the tension of those moments when an idealist pauses, briefly, in the midst of his moral downward spiral.
The Contender, like a modern Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, showed us an almost impossibly good person who survives the full force of the soulless political/media machine being brought against her. And with Ides, Clooney shows us his how the otherwise good people who operate within the machine are stripped of their souls in the first place. In the process, Clooney reveals the depths to which we the public, as both consumers of media and as voters, have had our confidence in the system eroded since the days of crusading righteousness that he depicted in 2005's excellent Edward R. Murrow-versus-McCarthyism picture, Good Night, and Good Luck. Certainly we still want to believe that our protagonists, be they on the screen or on the campaign trail, can remain "straight-shooters" in the face of the system, but by the end of The Ides of March we come to realize that the only straight-shooters in this world are those who can withstand being hardened by compromise.