In an alternate world known as Ohio, in the days before an imaginary contest called the Democratic presidential primary, candidate George Clooney commands the microphones, saying many things that Nation readers dearly want to hear. He endorses secularism, abortion rights, renewable energy and renewed manufacturing; he lambastes militarism, fossil fuels and fearmongering. Not since Orson Welles took to the stump for FDR has a movie star delivered the Popular Front message with such roguish swagger and basso fluency—and Clooney, unlike Welles, is in shape. Set aside for a moment the unlikeliness that a candidate who articulates these positions might win the presidency. (With Clooney at the podium, disbelief suspends itself.) The greater improbability is one that has actually come to pass in the world of commerce. Columbia Pictures has released The Ides of March, a movie that blithely writes off millions of potential ticket buyers who will not assent to a description of Republicans as tightly disciplined filth.
How to explain The Ides of March, if not as art then as a business proposition? First, I acknowledge that Clooney—by all appearances a smart man, and a principled one—has amassed enough power to be the producer, director and co-writer of his own movies, as well as the box-office draw. I also note that an industry faced with steadily declining theater admissions and a welter of new distribution channels is ever more willing to engage in niche marketing, even when the niche is us.
Mostly, though, I observe that the wish fulfillment of polemical drama gets sideswiped in The Ides of March by the imperatives of trite playwriting, sending both of them spinning into an intersection blocked by the tractor-trailer of realism.
The collision damage report must therefore begin with the screenplay and its origin in the Beau Willimon play Farragut North. The Ides of March makes some efforts to open up this source material by offering views of brown-brick downtown Cincinnati in late winter. (These shots are also an auteurist gesture; we’re seeing the landscape of Clooney’s youth.) Otherwise, though, the film remains enclosed in Willimon’s theatrical conventions, advancing the plot through a succession of two-character confrontations. People may try to deceive one another during these set-to’s, but the characters never deceive themselves about their motives, never struggle to discover what they think and never fail to instruct the audience, loudly, about the next point to be understood. The advantage of this time-tested expository scheme is clarity. The disadvantage for The Ides of March (other than a tendency to produce screaming matches with metronomic regularity) is an emotional divorce between the dramaturgy and its purpose, which is to lay bare the hypocrisy of people who really don’t conceal much.
Chief among them is the central character: not candidate Clooney but his hotshot young press handler, played by Ryan Gosling. Suddenly as omnipresent as Jessica Chastain, Gosling brings to this character virtually the same mannerisms that you see when he plays the wealthy womanizer in Crazy, Stupid, Love and the lonely, sensitive criminal in Drive. His diction is that of a street punk. (While projecting no particular ethnicity, Gosling makes every word sound like “putz.”) His lean build is coiled and potentially menacing. But the narrow, delicately modeled face (perpetually shadowed by a one-day stubble) contradicts the tough-guy image, especially when Gosling looks off to the side, brooding and dreaming, instead of facing the person speaking to him, or when he produces his signature tight-lipped grin without preparation, out of a deadpan, and quickly hides it again. By making the same persona work for three dissimilar characters, Gosling demonstrates not that he’s without resources but that he’s a star—a point that Clooney, as director, has cleverly underscored in The Ides of March. Just as the campaign’s media handler comes to supplant the candidate (I reveal theme, not plot), so is Gosling allowed in his performance to supplant Clooney as leading man.