I realize that Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Moneyball) can’t write all the films, but I couldn’t help but think that The Ides of March would’ve greatly benefited from one of his famous rewrites. The film lacks his trademark verbal zing and insiderish authority, not to mention his gift for character development.
As it is, The Ides of March feels a bit like it’s doing an impression of a great film. It certainly has the dream cast—Ryan Gosling, George Clooney (who also directed), Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Paul Giamatti. (What? Daniel Day-Lewis wasn’t available?). And its setting—the corrupt world of primary politics—has produced more than its fair share of classics. But while the film is hardly a dud, it falls seriously short of greatness.
Gosling plays Stephen Myers, campaign press secretary for presidential candidate Governor Mike Morris (Clooney). Stephen is shrewd, but an idealist. He believes fully in Morris, who is a principled liberal in the manner of Barack Obama (although, as is often the case with Hollywood films about politics, Morris is way too liberal to actually win a general election: He’s a pacifist who also admits to being an atheist).
Stephen works under Seymour Hoffman’s Paul Zara, who is less an ideologue and more a career campaign runner. Zara has hitched his cart to Morris, not because he has sentimental notions that Morris can save America, but because he believes he can win. Giamatti plays Tom Duffy, the campaign manager for Morris’ opponent. Duffy sees something in Stephen, flatters him a bit, and later invites him to a clandestine meeting.
And here’s where they lost me: This meeting, the most significant event of the film, never rang true. Why would Stephen meet with the head of an opponent’s campaign? If the film had taken some time to establish that Stephen was disgruntled, that perhaps he felt Morris and Zara weren’t appreciating his gifts, it might’ve made sense. As it is, you never believe that Stephen would agree to the meeting. And if he did, you certainly don’t believe that he would lie about it later.
We’re supposed to see the fallout from this meeting—and later, a cover-up of a potential sex scandal involving an intern (Evan Rachel Wood)— as part of a great American tragedy: An idealist sees the world for what it is and becomes a cynic. The film is about how politics corrupts all who come in contact with it. But we have to be really invested in Stephen for this to work and he kind of lost us when he met with Duffy. (It doesn’t help that the usually brilliant Gosling seems to have retained some of the cool inscrutability he adopted for his role in the minimalist action film Drive.)
Later, a game-changing confrontation between Stephen and Morris feels anti-climactic. We don’t know enough about Morris, or his relationship with Stephen, to see this as the film’s big showdown. (A minor showdown with Zara in a parking lot actually has more heft.) As for the sex scandal? At this point, it would be almost more interesting to see a film about primary politics that didn’t include an intern sex scandal.
To be truly successful, a political film needs to give you a sense that you’re witnessing all sorts of juicy behind-the-scenes intrigue—but The Ides of March feels more like Political Corruption 101. What’s more, a film about betrayal needs to have higher personal stakes. That’s why The Ides of March, while certainly smarter than your average multiplex fare, falls short—and why that Aaron Sorkin rewrite might’ve done wonders.