THE IDES OF MARCH is a suitably Machiavellian portrait of how politics works. Not in the bastardized sense of ruthlessness for ruthlessness sake, but rather in the classical Machiavellian sense, ruthlessness to manage any given situation in order to achieve ones goals while making as little fuss with the population at large as possible. In this case, its demonstrated by a rising star in the managing of a presidential campaign game, and he is about to take his mentor, an old hand at these things, and his client, a politician who wants to make a difference, to school on how the game of Realpolitik is played.
The reference to the day about which Julius Caesar was warned is not coincidental, its also given a nice twist. The same is true of an oft-told tale wherein human failings threaten the greater good of a political campaign. In this case that of Democrat Mike Morris (George Clooney), a liberal conflation of Obama and Clinton with all the right answers to saving the country from the economic and political mess that its in. On his staff is Steven Myers (Ryan Gosling), an idealist who is savvy but who has until now remained unsullied by the dark side of managing a candidate through the primary process. In a prescient conversation with a reporter from a major paper (Marisa Tomei), think of the soothsayer in the Shakespeare play, hes warned that politicians will always let you down. He laughs it off, as did Caesar. Myers isnt innocent, but his faith in Morris is absolute. Just like his faith in his grizzled boss, Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). He does know one thing for sure, that in this game, you get one mistake and then your out. Naturally, everyone involved makes one mistake. The story then turns on how everyone involved sorts out for themselves doing the right thing for the sake of their souls against the far more pressing necessity of doing the smart thing.
There is a delicious and dirty secret bubbling just beneath the surface that drives everything that the public sees about the campaign, but of which it is completely unaware. Behind the scenes, of course, its different. Though Morris is high-minded enough to not want to make deals with the one man (Jeffrey Wright) who can assure him of the presidential nomination because of a philosophical difference of opinion, he is nonetheless fallible in other ways. Myers, privy to the secret of that fallibility, and having made a mistake of his own, is left in the sort of moral quandary that makes for a deeply satisfying dramatic story in the right hands. Fortunately, Clooney, actor, director, and co-writer, has those hands. The storytelling is lean, stark, and to the point. There is enormous respect for the way conversations are conducted, the smiling insincerity of professionals working for and against each other has the steely toughness that makes loyalty the most elusive and most desired of qualities. Even the sweet young thing (Evan Rachel Wood) that seduces Myers with her smarts and her impudence is not everything she seems, and yet she is.
Clooney is excellent as the dream progressive candidate. Striking the right note in front of an audience, striking a different, but equally right note with his handlers but at all times conveying a sense of both honor and duty. Gosling, though, gets the meaty role and he pours every ounce of himself into it with a nuance and a passion that amps up the tension without his needing to raise his voice. In fact, its the soft voice he uses, and the timbre of it that changes ever so slightly, this is the most devastating.
It is given to Paul Giamatti, as beetling guy running the competing politicians campaign, to parse the difference between how Democrats and Republicans conduct the political process, a parsing that includes the image of elephants in the mud if you need to know on which side the political spectrum this film falls. Its also given to him to say the most salient line in the film, the one about how its not about the democratic process, but about getting elected. Its not new, but it, like the rest of the film, direct and to the point. As for the secrets and their fallout, there is something old, something new, and plenty to keep an audience on the edge of their collective seats. THE IDES OF MARCH gives everyone watching a reason to root for or against everyone on screen. Involving, engrossing, and scathingly brilliant in its examination of the process that promises change and cant seem to deliver anything but business as usual.