Sizzling Cynicism of ‘The Ides of March’ Burns Out in the Finale

The Ides of March is as cynical about the modern political system as one would expect given our rancorous times.  But the film’s hackneyed final act offers an extra layer of cynicism moviegoers could sure live without.
 
And that’s a shame, because The Ides of March’s narrative lacks the kind of cinematic sucker punches conservatives have gotten used to receiving of late.
 
Yes, the film is liberal to the core, but its story is contained within that universe that should let conservatives sit back and enjoy the dramatic fireworks.
 
George Clooney, marking his fourth turn behind the camera, gives himself the small but critical role of Mike Morris, a Democratic governor with his eyes on the White House.  He’s so far Left, he talks about the end of the internal combustion engine in the next decade as if it were more than merely a pipe dream.  He also plans to force 18-year-olds into mandatory volunteerism.
 
And don’t get him started on those evil millionaires.
 
“The richest people don’t pay their fair share,” Morris says, sounding an awful lot like a certain President with a gift for class warfare.
 
Morris’ key lieutenant is Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), an adviser smitten with his boss’s hope-and-change rhetoric.  Just how smitten is he?  Myers steals a glance at Morris on television while making love to a beautiful woman.
 
Get a room, you two.
 
When a nosy New York Times reporter (Marisa Tomei) tells Myers he’s drunk too much of the Morris Kool-Aid, Myers grins and calls it, “delicious.”
 
“He’ll let you down sooner or later,” she warns.
 
Stephen’s idealism is bound to get the better of him, and when he meets a flirtatious campaign intern (Evan Rachel Wood), it marks the beginning of his real political education.
 
Clooney, who co-wrote the script along with frequent collaborator Grant Heslov, brings plenty of fizz to the proceedings.  You don’t have to be a policy wonk to enjoy the banter between Myers and Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the salty veteran on Morris’ staff.
 
The script gets off a few lazy jabs at the Right.  The Democratic race between Morris and his mostly unseen rival is considered the true presidential election because the Republicans, we’re told, “can’t find a nominee who isn’t a word-class [screwup].”  And a crucial primary election could be decided by a cinematic version of Rush Limbaugh’s Operation Chaos.
 
The Ides of March argues that even the most righteous politicians must play dirty to win, either by forging alliances against their better judgment or leaking rumors just to keep opponents off balance.  That’s hardly breaking news, but  this movie depicts the machinations of modern politics in a way that makes such revelations feel both fresh and depressing.  Yet the film doesn’t feel as dark as it plays out, thanks to the gritty cast and Clooney’s deft touch behind the camera.
 
It helps to have a gaggle of the best actors in the business at your bidding.  Paul Giamatti isn’t onscreen nearly enough as the campaign manager of Morris’ Democratic opponent, but his battle-tested philosophies contrast sharply with Myers’ crumbling innocence.
 
Wood’s character could use a spit polish, but the beguiling young actress finds the humanity within her all the same.
 
The Ides of March may be cynical to the core, but it flashes plenty of Tinsel Town wishful thinking in the presidential department.  Consider it an update on both the protagonist in The American President and “The West Wing’s” President Bartlet.
 
Morris is liberal Hollywood’s dream candidate.  Not only does he look like George Clooney, but he’s to the left of Dennis Kucinich.  But Morris is no fool.  When interviewer Charlie Rose, playing himself, tries to snare Morris in a Dukakis-style trap about a hypothetical attack on his wife, Morris freely admits he would kill the perpetrator—and that he should be sent to jail for his crime.
 
Based on the 2008 play Farragut North, The Ides of March simmers for a good hour before the narrative starts to blister and peel away.  What’s left are characters behaving in ways that only make sense if one wants the steer the story toward its soapy denouement.
 
Gosling’s character fares the worst, turning from a naïve audience surrogate into someone we can’t even recognize, let alone root on.
 
Clooney’s Morris may seem like an assault on President Obama at first.  The two share the same charismatic presence and some eerily similar election posters.  But this movie makes Clooney look as competent as he is cool, so any Obama comparisons run into a dead end soon enough.
 
The Ides of March remains a must-see for political junkies, but those drawn in by the first hour’s razzle-dazzle will find little hope of a crackling finale.

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