George Clooney's new campaign-trail thriller, "The Ides of March," has a difficult, possibly disturbing message to impart. You may want to sit down before hearing what it has to say. Ready? Here goes:
Politicians, even the ones we adore the most, aren't the squeaky clean heroes we sometimes make them out to be.
The individuals in whom we invest our greatest hopes for political transformation - not naming any names here - are not always the shining catalysts of change many hoped they would be.
Also: Working in politics will make you cynical.
As you may have noticed, this is not really news. But "The Ides of March" seems to think it is. A competent, well-acted and generally entertaining thriller, it is also a movie that's not nearly as smart about its subject - politics - as it thinks it is.
"The Ides of March" is adapted from Beau Willimon's 2008 play "Farragut North," which itself was based very loosely on Mr. Willimon's time as a staffer on Howard Dean's 2004 campaign. Mr. Clooney, who directed the film and reworked Mr. Willimon's script with frequent co-writer Grant Heslov, has given it a contemporary overhaul, transforming the central campaign into a barely disguised stand-in for President Obama's 2008 run.
Helping to manage that run is Stephen Meyers (a glowing, golden-maned Ryan Gosling, now well on his way to becoming a major star), a 30-year-old wiz-kid consultant who we're told has considerable campaign experience. But for the first time, he really believes in his candidate: Gov. Mike Morris (Mr. Clooney), an eloquent, Obama-like liberal purist who inspires heartfelt devotion from voters and staff alike.
Naturally, the movie tests those beliefs, but in frustrating, limited ways that merely suggest problems with Morris' personal mettle, not his political beliefs or policy commitments.
No, what really makes "The Ides of March" so enjoyable to watch is that it frequently works as a sort of campaign-trail procedural. Unlike most Hollywood election dramas, it doesn't seem to be under the impression that a campaign is merely a series of speeches. Instead, "The Ides of March" sticks firmly with the operatives, drawing on Mr. Willimon's knowledge of the day-to-day dealings of real-world campaign operations and the people who work them. The script gleefully marinates in their dirty tricks, their media manipulations, their endless streams of creative vulgarities.
It helps, of course, that those vulgarities are uttered with weary panache by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, who play campaign managers for Morris and his Democratic primary rival, respectively.
The two seasoned character actors earn their lived-in cynicism. But the script, despite strong dialogue, doesn't.
Much of what it attempts to pass off as hard-bitten realism is in fact its own form of naivete. Politicians have personal weaknesses? And campaign managers prioritize winning over principle? The movie seems shocked and even upset to find that politics is crude, caustic, unfair and unforgiving - a ruthless and impersonal game played by ruthless and impersonal contestants. No! It can't be!
But it is. "The Ides of March" wants us to be impressed that it has figured all this out. What it inadvertently reveals, though, is how much it didn't know in the first place.
TITLE: "The Ides of March"
CREDITS: Directed by George Clooney. Screenplay by Mr. Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon
RATING: R for salty political talk, sexual situations
RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS