One thing I noted as central to the success of Mr Smith Goes to Washington was that, though a political movie, it doesn’t actively subscribe to a particular ideology. Instead, it inhabits a sort of undefined place where the actions of individual politicians and how they manipulate constituents and political process is far more important than ideological grandstanding. We never even know what party any of the characters belong to: though they’re split in the aisles, the closest we ever get is people saying things like, “The members of my party won’t stand for this!” and other such deliberately ambiguous pronouncements.
The Ides of March is more concrete in its storytelling. Its candidate, Mike Morris (George Clooney, who also directs), is the Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania. The film self-consciously borrows the iconography of the Obama campaign in designing the look of Morris’s campaign, and Clooney plays Morris to have the same sort of even-handed intellect that was so attractive about Obama’s 2008 run. Despite that, the film stays true to the Capric model, rightfully abstaining from being about issues (though it can’t resist a few moments of proseletyzing during scenes of Morris stumping) and instead focusing on politics as a source of moral decay, one that leaves no one untouched.
The protagonist, Stephen Meyers (the always-impeccable Ryan Gosling, in the midst of a banner year), is the second-in-command on Morris’s campaign during the race for the Democratic nomination, the ‘best media mind in the country’ serving under experienced Campaign Manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Stephen becomes involved with campaign intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) in a short-lived affair which nonetheless becomes the catalyst for a chain of events that will lead to the unraveling of his place in the campaign — and, more importantly, of his belief in what the campaign stands for, a loss that is all the more poignant because Stephen has so thoroughly bought into the campaign as something different from the rest.
The Ides of March should stand on its own as a thoroughly entertaining political thriller, a few contrived twists in the third act notwithstanding. Unfortunately, I suspect that it’s doomed to be seen as a jaded reaction to the disappointment of the first three years of the Obama administration and a tired lament about politics as a corrupting force. To be sure, those criticisms aren’t entirely unfair: the esteemed A.O. Scott argues that the movie ‘makes its points carefully and unimpeachably but does not bring much in the way of insight or risk,’ and, certainly, if you’re looking for blazing new insight into American political process, or into the hearts of charismatic politicians, you’ll be disappointed to find that the movie reaffirms that they are, in fact, just as flawed as we always thought.
Still, I’m not convinced that that’s the important point of the film. When do political thrillers, especially good one, ever really tell us anything about politics? The Ides of March, like Mr Smith Goes to Washington, paints a story of human weakness with the strange alchemical paint of the political anxieties of the day mixed with what people yearn for in response to those anxieties. For Frank Capra, those anxieties were about how the power of political machines and the heightened distance between politicians in Washington and the people back home facilitated corruption; the tonic is the aww-shucks sincerity of Jefferson Smith. The Ides of March takes on a new set of preoccupations and offers a more modern vision of a messiah, and uses them to spin its own tale.