George Clooney’s The Ides of March is a slow and modest political drama that often feels like a faster and better thriller. There’s no crime, just misbehaviour and deals and dangerous knowledge, but it generates quite a bit of the suspense and discomfort we associate with crime movies. We don’t want the truth of the story to be true, and we wish the characters would not act in the way they have already set about acting.
Good American critics have been quite hard on it, liking the performances and the setting but finding the message tired: politics is not about good deeds but about dirty business, a matter of getting down in the muck with the elephants, as one of the movie’s campaign managers puts it. It’s true that it does peddle this theme, and also that many of its plot shifts are sudden and very implausible. The vamp turns victim in mid-scene, and the innocent idealist becomes a lethal blackmailer while we’re still wondering how he could have been so innocent in the first place. But plausibility isn’t everything, and I found the weary theme rather touching: it’s as if we still cared. The abrupt shifts just seemed eerie in their unlikeliness, as if somebody’s unconscious kept kicking in. This is really a film about risking and losing your soul, even if the soul itself is an improbable inhabitant of such a world, and it can’t be good to lose your soul if you have one.
One of the film’s most elegant tactics, taken from the play it is based on, Farragut North, by Beau Willimon, is to displace the action from the notional dramatic limelight rather than shove it ever more into it. This is a tale not of an American presidential election, or even an election campaign, but of a campaign to become a candidate in such a campaign; not of a struggle between parties but of a vote to decide who may become a party’s choice, centred on a Democratic primary in the state of Ohio. One of the candidates in this primary scarcely appears, and the other, played by George Clooney, who also directs the film, is mainly an object of dream and desire rather than a person, like Barack Obama at the time of his election. He becomes a person late in the film, but that is only when the plot forces him to become political with a small p – a very small, even mean p. In the play the candidate himself doesn’t even figure except as a topic of discussion.
The campaign managers are far more important in the movie than the candidates, and the veteran New York Times reporter, played by Marisa Tomei, has a significant role, indeed seems to be the only reporter in the world. But the film’s heroes are a campaign manager’s chief assistant (Ryan Gosling, who manages every improbable shift in his character with such aplomb, is so convincing in every contradictory aspect, that you keep forgetting what’s wrong with the writing) and a busy young intern (Evan Rachel Wood) who gets herself into all kinds of trouble. The very word ‘intern’ will give you a clue as to the kind of trouble this is, for her and for others, and the film rather clunkily underlines this suggestion – boys will be boys, even if they’re relatively senior men, especially when they’re away from home and there are enough girls – by introducing another intern after the first one’s death, for no reason except to say that good-looking interns come with the territory. No more plot details, I promise.
The two campaign managers are Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, and the film would be worth seeing for them alone. Hoffman is mock-genial but unmistakably fierce, the man for the job; and Giamatti is sinister and snarling, but has a harsh lucidity that turns out to work as if it were a form of integrity. ‘Integrity’ is a big word in the film, much bandied about and always a sign of trouble. It’s not that it doesn’t exist even here, only that it can’t look much like integrity as we think we know it. When Hoffman gives Gosling a long eloquent sermon on the question of trust – he tells a story from the start of his career, when he refused to abandon an employer who looked like a loser – there is no way of deciding whether Hoffman is a good man reaching for a straight truth beneath all the angles and bluffs and façades, the simple certainty that allows him to finesse everything else, or whether he is just laying out a thoroughgoing pragmatism, asserting that trust is a basic currency of the trade, part of the operator’s arsenal, as long as you know where to place it.
The trigger for this brilliant talk is Gosling’s having had a conversation with the enemy in the form of Giamatti, and having told Hoffman about it too late: a hitch not of the campaign but within the campaign organisation. The big open issue for much of the film is whether Clooney, the atheist liberal champion of help for the poor and the environment, the opponent of the death penalty, will buy the votes he needs by promising that if he becomes president he will make a relatively conservative senator secretary of state. Clooney disapproves of this man on every count, and nobly says they will have to win the nomination another way. All his advisers think he should make this deal, and even his wife wonders whether it might not be necessary. What’s most interesting morally about the film at this point is what’s least interesting politically. Clooney, I take it deliberately, underplays his charisma and even his arguments, so we are not surprised he doesn’t have more of an edge over the other pallid contender. Integrity is a fine thing, and an easy attribute, if you can win a race without wheeling and dealing. But how much do you want to win, and at what point do wheeling and dealing seem merely practical politics rather than a betrayal of principle? And at what kind of wheeling and dealing are we drawing the line? At how much?
This is where a politician might lose his soul if he had one, but it isn’t the sort of arena where Gosling runs the risk of losing his. Gosling doesn’t understand trust in either of the ways we might take Hoffman’s definition to function, and he hasn’t needed to. He is, we are told, a brilliant political manager, and he thinks all his hard work for Clooney is based on his admiration for the man and his proposed policies. He recognises and cherishes his own ambition, but does not foresee any major conflict as its consequence. He’s not afraid of dirty work in a good cause, and a whole central chunk of the film shows him selflessly, if grimly, cleaning up a mess that is potentially ruinous for his side. Gosling’s change of mood here is subtle, not sudden. The man of charm, for whom work and play could often look like a single thing, is learning the hard way that some work is definitely stuff you’d rather not be doing. But then a series of events, caught up in if not exactly caused by a series of missed phone calls, pleas, delays, avoidances, puts him in a quite different position. Now he has to decide not, like Clooney, whether to make a deal, but whether to use an ugly card he finds he has in his hand. It’s not a matter of sacrificing principle to practice, but of crossing the line into extortion. Will he do it? What will the costs be? And will it work? The movie answers the first of these questions. The second probably can’t be answered, and the third no doubt requires a further question: if so, for how long?
But we don’t see the answer, only pick up the pieces of its playing out. In what is perhaps the film’s most tense and understated scene, we are shown a large black SUV parked in an alley. Inside the car a conversation is taking place, which must settle our question one way or another. But we don’t know which way it will go, and we just stare at the dark windshield, the lumpy crude vehicle, the litter in the alley, the back of another car parked close by. Even when a man steps out of the SUV we don’t know which of the two options has been chosen. It’s a great movie moment: we can see what we can see, but it’s not enough. And as with the declension from president to party to primary to campaign to person, you begin to think it’s elections all the way down.