The gist: George Clooney proves again he's one of the rare sleek, competent thesp-turned-directors with this efficiently structured, neatly designed political drama with farcical undertones.
The Ides of March isn't intended to be an intellectually challenging political thriller. Expect it to offer some sort of epiphany about the American political landscape, and you'll come out of the theater hugely disappointed. Being revelatory isn't what this movie seems to be aiming at. Nor does it try to be a didactic allegory representing certain political views. Is it, then, a liberal's satirical embodiment of bitter disappointment in Obama who once made himself the epitome of hope? Not really, though some parts of it may resonate strongly with liberal-minded viewers experiencing such Obama-era frustration. Rather, liberal or conservative, most viewers will find themselves nodding in agreement with its overriding theme: politicians are corrupt.
But then, it centers specifically on a guy who devotes his life to politics and how his idealism and optimism quickly wash away once he realizes the simple, but hard-to-swallow, truth about what he loves the most. The guy's called Stephen Meyers, the hotshot brains behind Democratic Presidential candidate Mike Morris' campaign, who, in the opening scene, appears dreamy-eyed and full of hope. Not only does he firmly believe his candidate is the only one who can bring about change, he seems unreasonably invested in it while adamantly denying being naïve. When his so-called friend and a New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz warns, “He'll let you down sooner or later,” we kind of sense where this story is headed. The whole process of getting there, however, from the inciting action to the denouement, from Stephen's fall into disgrace to his miraculous table-turning maneuver, seems absurd and asinine.
The problem that many viewers will instantaneously find with this movie is that Stephen is such a difficult character to sympathize with, and his actions constantly contradict his words: he's the one who makes unfathomably stupid mistakes, especially when his “life” is at stake, yet he dares to lecture a lowly intern who's as fucked up as he is about the gravity of small errors resulting in the loss of eligibility to play the game. On top of that, the film’s simplistic treatment of such serious subject-matter, along with the nearly one-note characterizations, contributes to its donning of an outfit that's too cool and sleek for an audience to find quite fitting. But that's exactly the point it's trying to make: it doesn't take itself seriously. Put differently, it's rather disguised in dead seriousness with farcical undertones.
The crux of the movie is, then, its illustration of naïve idealism crumbling in the face of the harsh reality of politics. Just like Tom Duffy, anyone who's in politics is destined to be jaded and cynical, and Stephen is no exception. Only when he acknowledges the true colors of politics does he muster up the strength to get back in the game as a top-notch player and ultimately attain his goal, but by then, his eyes are completely drained of the hope and optimism that used to propel him forward. Stephen's abrupt, drastic transformation over the course of a week is what The Ides of March focuses on, a cynical glimpse at the collapse of a political wunderkind’s ideals. His character arc is commensurate with Alexandre Desplat's initial brisk, march-themed score morphing into a much more somber tone, and the message's further articulated with the recurring, starkly contrasting closeups of Stephen's face in the opening and closing scenes.
As for the performances, an interesting comparison can be drawn between Ryan Gosling whose acting hinges on understated facial expressions and gestures, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti's more theatrical takes. Other noteworthy accomplishments come from George Clooney's turn as a poker-faced, cold-hearted politician, Evan Rachel Wood as a melodramatic, precocious intern, and Marisa Tomei as a fair-weather friend and opportunistic journalist. An equally effective contributor is Clooney's direction setting the tone for the film, which symbolizes Stephen's ridiculously dramatic metamorphosis with a lightheartedly satirical touch.