When a political thriller is called "The Ides of March," it's safe to presume it's not going to celebrate the gracious pleasures of good government. Referencing the betrayal and assassination of Roman emperor Julius Caesar lets us know that darker forces are going to be given free rein, the darker the better.
Directed by George Clooney (who headlines along with a powerhouse cast that includes Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei and Jeffrey Wright), "Ides" does not disappoint, at least not in that department.
Sharing the writing credit with Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov is Beau Willimon, a former political operative who turned his experience working for Hillary Rodham Clinton, Howard Dean, Bill Bradley and others into "Farragut North," a play named after a Washington, D.C. Metro stop that is this film's source material.
As a writer with that familiarity with the inner workings of the American political system, Willimon certainly knows where the bodies are buried. "Ides" takes us inside the all-scheming-all-the-time hardball world of presidential campaigns, where whom you can trust is an eternally open question. When one character says, "this is the big leagues, it's mean," he is not kidding.
The dialogue is smart and focused, and as a director Clooney has encouraged his cast to really tear into it. It's certainly involving to see the charismatic Gosling verbally spar with superb character actors like Hoffman and Giamatti.
Still, even though all the supporting elements of a superior film are here, the actual plot that everything is at the service of is disappointing. The texture of reality and the sheen of fine craft disguise this for a while, but not forever.
Photographed by the versatile Phedon Papamichael, "Ides" begins with a particularly potent image. A man (Gosling) comes out of the darkness into the light of a stage and begins to give a campaign speech. But something feels wrong, the presentation is off in timing and emotion. Because this is not the candidate, it's a stand-in.
The setting is the March Ohio Democratic primary, with 161 convention delegates at stake, and the man is Stephen Meyers. He is not just the spokesman for the surging Gov. Mike Morris; he is a true believer, someone who has drunk the Kool-Aid and is convinced that the candidate is a principled man who could make a difference in people's lives.
And no wonder. The governor is an off-stage character in the play, but as portrayed by Clooney, Morris is the kind of fighting liberal a lot of Democrats wish Barack Obama would be. Potential Republican viewers, however, need not worry: This is too bleak a world for anyone to come off as completely heroic.
Meyers' boss, exceptionally played by Hoffman, is campaign manager Paul Zara, a rumpled veteran of half a dozen presidential campaigns. Going toe-to-toe with him in an equally strong performance is Giamatti as Tom Duffy, the manager for Morris' main rival.
If anything, Duffy is even more cutthroat than his opposite number, telling Meyers, whose skills he admires, that Democrats should emulate the Republicans: "They're tougher, more disciplined than we are. It's about time we learned from them."
Not lacking in guile or toughness are the other key players. Tomei is Ida Horowicz, a hard-driving New York Times reporter who is as ruthless and cynical as any of the people she covers. And Wright is appropriately enigmatic as another presidential candidate trying to make the best possible deal for himself.
And then there is Molly Stearns, an intern on the campaign who is young enough to think she's sophisticated when really she is not. Played with energy and panache by Wood, who seems to improve from role to role, Stearns doesn't hesitate to set her cap for the press spokesman, and the flirtation between these two is nicely credible.
Not so, however, is the rest of this film's increasingly unconvincing plot. The problem is not that things start to unravel for some of the characters, it's that they do so in an overly familiar way that is more schematic and less interesting than what has come before. "Ides of March" is an intelligent, involving picture that feels all too real — until it doesn't.