One only need know the title of George Clooney's The Ides of March – aptly named for the day of a fateful backstabbing – to suspect that this political drama is less to do with public policy and more to do with the cutthroat chess match that plays itself out on the other side of the curtain. As designed by Clooney and his co-writers Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon (the latter of whom penned the original play), the actual issues are peripheral as seen from the vacuum in which jaded campaign strategists ply their splenetic trade; people are played against each other, secrets divulged, secrets kept, trust severed, but all with a purpose. All for the cause of The Campaign.
The Campaign is being run for charismatic governor Mike Morris (Clooney), who must win the Ohio primary in order to secure the Democratic nomination he could ride to a presidency. Heading The Campaign is savvy, young staffer Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) and his loyal mentor Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Things are looking up for Governor Morris in the polls, and for Stephen's promising career alongside the future president as well, that is, until he receives an unexpected call from rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). Duffy solicits Stephen to come work for Morris' opponent, revealing information to Stephen that deflate The Campaign's once optimistic chances. As Stephen grapples with the ramifications of his ill-considered meeting with the opposition, in combination with an alarming development involving the intern with whom he has become romantically entangled (Evan Rachel Wood), he becomes regrettably aware that his lofty ideals aren't buoyant enough to keep his head above water in this no-room-for-error line of work.
Viewers hoping to find some real political food for thought might actually be disappointed to find it mostly glossed over here. There are some debate/speech/rally scenes that speak to perennial hot topics in U.S. politics – such as religion, the death penalty, or gay marriage, briefly addressed with Hollywood's reliably liberal slant – but these moments serve mainly as the "frontdrop" of a much more interesting backstage scene. Clooney et. al. realize that making the actual politics the meat of this story would either alienate or bore their audience, so they wisely keep it on the side. The hypocritical game of politics is what's put front and centre for us to see; irredeemably cynical (maybe too much so) in its depiction of a profession in which one's career cannot survive without compromising, or even completely abandoning, one's principles. An individual's allegiance can be bought and sold. Betrayal is completely justifiable if it benefits The Campaign. Whether you agree or not with this grim assessment, it makes for a terrific yarn.
***1/2 out of ****