The political drama The Ides Of March— director/co-writer/star George Clooney adaptation of Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North—isn’t The Candidate; more like The Campaign Manager. The film version stars Ryan Gosling as an idealistic political consultant who believes he’s found a real “change candidate” (Clooney), but soon discovers that even doing what’s right in politics requires so much compromise that it’s impossible to stay ethically pure. Gosling and Clooney slog through Ohio, trying to secure the Democratic presidential nomination by winning a primary in a state that isn’t a slam-dunk for them. Clooney’s overt atheism hurts him some with Midwestern voters, though crowds respond to his charisma and honesty, and he stands a decent chance overall if he can land the endorsement of an African-American senator played by Jeffrey Wright. Gosling, meanwhile, is receiving overtures from their opponent’s campaign manager (Paul Giamatti), who seems unsettlingly confident that his side has the nomination in the bag. Can Gosling hear Giamatti out, to find an angle that will help Clooney? Or will even meeting with the enemy send a message to the press that Clooney is sunk?
The Ides Of March has a terrific cast, including Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gosling’s mentor, Marisa Tomei as a pesky reporter, and Evan Rachel Wood as a sexy intern with a power fetish and a political pedigree of her own. On the whole, the movie goes down easily, thanks to its sophisticated bustle and a strong third-act twist that tests the hero’s mettle. But it all feels a bit inconsequential, perhaps by design. This is a political film that isn’t about big issues, even though Clooney’s character gives a lot of stump speeches that seem designed to paint him as a Democrat’s dream candidate. Instead, The Ides Of March is about matters of trust, fidelity, and the perniciousness of rumor, and though that’s probably a lot closer to what real politics is like, as drama, it’s pretty slight. Plus, it’s not like the idea that gamesmanship trumps sound policy debates these days is any kind of shocker. If The Ides Of March more resembled the work of David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin—writers capable of turning the language of powerful men into its own weird, catchy music—then the movie might have some real pop. Potentially obnoxious pop, granted, but pop nonetheless. As it is, The Ides Of March comes off as too slick and respectable while it’s delivering old news.