Review: 'The Ides of March'

(Three stars)

Stop me if you've heard this one: How can you tell when a politician is lying? If you know the well-worn punchline, you probably won't learn anything from George Clooney's "The Ides of March," but you may enjoy it all the same.

Based on the 2008 play "Farragut North" by Beau Willimon (who served as communications director for Howard Dean in the 2004 election), "The Ides of March" goes behind the scenes of a Democratic presidential primary race, as seen through the eyes of idealistic, highly placed campaign staffer Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling). Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris (George Clooney) is looking good heading into the Ohio Democratic Primary -- a little too good, perhaps. As the Republican machinery manuevers to get out the vote for Morris' less electable rival, Morris' team parries and thrusts.

Rival campaign managers Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman, ever the standout) and Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) clearly have read their Machiavelli; the film's central conflict begins to unfold when Duffy, hoping to poach a keen political mind, makes an overture to Myers.

A true believer in his own candidate, Myers declines, but complications ensue when top-tier reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) gets wind of his secret meeting with the other side. At this inopportune moment, opportunity knocks in the form of flirty intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), who happens to be the daughter of the Democratic National Committee chairman.

And so "The Ides of March" plays out like a game of high-stakes poker, mostly in shades of quiet, intense deliberation. The screenplay by actor-director Clooney, his writing-producing partner Grant Heslov, and Willimon evokes "The West Wing" in its tart, politically savvy dialogue, though "March" decidedly skews to cynicism about the American political process. (In a small but impactful role, Jeffrey Wright embodies conniving careerism.)

Though familiar, "March" tells a timely fable of campaign ethics and the temptation to move the line -- the higher one moves up the political food chain, the deeper the assurance that the ends justify the means.

The education (read disillusionment) of an idealist and misplaced trust within the political sphere mark well-trodden territory, but the details of brinksmanship keep the film percolating, in concert with terrific acting and Clooney's assured direction.

The picture is not without its memorable moments: The seriocomic opener is a gem, with Gosling behind a podium, wearily but expertly doing the advance work for a debate, and a top-notch scene of mutual seduction between Gosling and Wood proves equally pleasurable. Clooney the actor mostly stays on the margins, since the story lies with Morris' advance men.

Lest we forget, "The Ides of March" reminds us of the bloody realities of the political game. Not only backstabbers went after ol' Julius Caesar; he had his frontstabbers too.

Rated R for pervasive language. 1 hour, 41 minutes.

— Peter Canavese

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