Keepin’ it Reel: The Ides of March

I have a certain friend—let’s call him K—with whom I share an absolutely uncanny number of similarities. Recommending books that the other is already reading, having the same color Nalgene, things like that. So when we saw Ides early last night (of course we saw it on the same day), K texted me “For real don’t go”. Talk about conflicted: my doppelganger’s literally warning me not to see a movie, but I have this review to write… I watched it, of course. But K was right: for real don’t go.

Everything that I think Aaron Sorkin gets right, this movie gets completely wrong. The exaggeration George Clooney puts into Ides (he both acts and directs) is oriented in the absolute wrong direction: toward immense understatement. Real campaigns are a deliberately insane process, a full year of chickens running around without their heads. Yet somehow the candidate’s national media manager (Ryan Gosling) has the free time to go out for drinks nightly, sleep with the intern and question his broader morals. We get scenes of the campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) getting a haircut and lying on his bed smoking. Even the critical conversations between top-level staffers take place at a snail’s pace and everyone speaks in turn, as if they’re in a mid-level seminar rather than on the cusp of an election. Campaigning is the most exciting and stressful work in the world, and if they’re ever boring, it’s only because they’re so consistently thrilling. There’s very little thrilling here. 

The election itself too is saccharine and simplified. There’s a lazy dinner conversation early on in the film where the plot points are neatly laid out for the audience — to sultry background jazz, of course. Tellingly, it’s not a very long conversation:  we’re in a dreamy Obama ’08-like scenario, where the democrat is all but certain to win the general. So, like Obama, take every liberal fantasy you can imagine: pro-choice, pro-marriage equality, green energy advocate, anti-death penalty, non-interventionist–Dennis Kucinich with a strong jaw–and you have Ides’ front-runner for the presidency. If only.

All of this seems to be George Clooney’s liberal reverie. You really get the idea that he took his experiences of chillin’ and schmoozin’ on the trail with Obama and pals, added some POLS 0100 knowledge and a stock moral dilemma, slapped down some tension-building music and gave the whole affair a Shakespearean title. [SPOILER SPOILER: At one point, Gosling’s character says to Clooney’s, “There’s only one rule in politics: you don’t fuck the intern!” Of course, that’s just the stereotypical rule The Ides of March breaks…] But it’s no wonder this movie’s heavy-handed with the scandal and laid-back in the campaign downtime: all someone like Clooney would know about politics derives from the over-concentrated drama of his acting work and the political hobnobbing it grants him access to.

The hazy liberalism of a film like The Ides of March is dangerous. Dangerous because it reinforces the widespread idea that ‘Hollywood elitists’ just don’t understand politics. Dangerous because it’s the epitome of sexy over substance, of the Ryan Goslings and George Clooneys dominating the Philip Seymour Hoffmans. And dangerous because the contrived melodrama just might win it some Oscars when instead Ides is, like a scandal, something you simply need to bury and never return to.

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