"The Ides of March" attempts to be more than just a procedural political drama, and while moments of greatness exist within the film, a procedural political drama is essentially what it is. The film contains Shakespearean elements of ambition, loyalty, betrayal, sex and revenge — all which can often go hand-in-hand with the drama of politics. Although the film recycles many familiar plot devices found in other politically driven films, "The Ides of March" utilizes them well, thanks mainly to the strong cast.
The setting for the film is during a heavily contested Ohio presidential primary, a crucial election that will likely determine who will run for president under the banner of the Democratic Party. Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Myers, a 30-year-old campaign press secretary and an idealist who fervently believes in his candidate.
As the election draws closer, Myers finds himself navigating backroom politics, the manipulation of veteran political strategists and potential scandal. These factors not only threaten his own personal belief system, but jeopardize his candidate's chances of a presidential election. Myers is the lead character in the film and story focuses on his journey. The choices he makes and the actions he executes dictate the course of events that occur in the film.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Paul Zara, an experienced and cynical campaign manager who values loyalty above all else (particularly the loyalty of those on his staff). Paul Giamatti is Tom Duffy, the rival campaign manager who hopes to lure Myers (Gosling) over to his team. Molly Stearns, a young intern played well by Evan Rachel Wood is also aggressively pursuing Myers, but her pursuit is more seductive in nature.
In more of a supporting role, George Clooney plays Governor Mike Morris, a candidate running in the presidential primary race for the Democratic Party. Morris appears to be the kind of candidate only found in fiction; a free-thinking man of the people who's not tied to any particular establishment or belief system. Morris is the kind of candidate who will turn down potentially critical endorsements if he doesn't believe in them. As the film begins, the polls are starting to turn in Governor Morris' favor.
The impressive cast extends to the supporting players as well. This includes Marisa Tomei as a seasoned political journalist from The New York Times. She maintains a friendly rapport with the key figures in the Morris camp, but acknowledges that both sides have their own agendas. Jeffrey Wright plays Senator Thompson, whose role is comparatively small in the film, but has the greatest degree of political leverage than any other character.
While Clooney serves in a supporting capacity on screen, his presence looms large behind the scenes. Clooney directed "The Ides of March" in what is his fourth directorial effort and serves as co-producer. He also co-wrote the screenplay along with longtime collaborator, Grant Heslov. The screenplay was adapted from Beau Willimon's play "Farragut North," an account of Willimon's own experiences behind the scenes of a presidential campaign. The character of Governor Mike Morris never appears in the play, so he was created specifically for the film. Filmmakers also wisely changed the title to not only reflect the Shakespearean themes, but to set the primary on the 15th of March.
The film is admirable in that it doesn't make an attempt to send out an underlying political bias to the audience. The campaign in question exists solely within the Democratic Party, so a rival Republican candidate is only a potential goal not yet reached. There are one or two jabs made at the expense of Republicans (including a claim that Democrats need to fight as dirty as Republicans do in order to succeed), but Clooney balances those jabs with a few taken at the Democrats themselves.
As a director, Clooney does a terrific job of authenticating the political process. From using real life news media personalities to utilizing practical locations to shoot the film, Clooney successfully conveys a sense of realism throughout. The moments in the film that focus on the day-to-day routines involved with running a campaign are indeed interesting and appear authentic. The problem is these moments are not unique to "The Ides of March”; audiences have seen similar scenes in other films.
The political genre tool kit is dipped into frequently throughout the film, accessing such elements as the seemingly perfect candidate with the store front campaign headquarters, manipulative power plays, shady dealings, sex with an intern, backstabbing and cover-ups. While those tools are used effectively, it would have been refreshing to see some different elements aid the story and help depict how a modern presidential campaign is run.
While the film doesn't break any new ground in the political genre, "The Ides of March" poses some worthy questions, not all of which are answered within the confines of the film. Can a good person operate within a corrupt system? Is it possible to play fair in a game that often relies on underhanded tactics?
The most obvious question however is the one that asks whether or not loyalty and personal ideology have any place in running a successful campaign. That question is more or less answered and allows the film to become more of a character study. The characters are where the film's true appeal lies as the talented cast of actors all turn in universally excellent performances in otherwise standard political fare.