An idealistic young campaign worker is sitting in a plane with the dream of becoming the Democratic presidential candidate. Or so it seems. The plane ride is a bumpy one, which leads the campaign worker to say, “Nothing bad happens when you’re doing the right thing.” The presidential candidate replies, “Is that your personal theory? Because I can shoot holes in it.”
The campaign worker, Stephen (Ryan Gosling), starts out in “The Ides of March” as someone who honestly believes the man he is working for can make the country a better place. More experienced and wise people, like Ida (Marisa Tomei), a New York Times journalist, and Stephen’s boss and mentor Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tell him that the world of politics is no place for an idealist. They tell Steven that no matter how much you believe in your guy, it’s just a matter of time before he lets you down.
With some help from a second-half twist, Stephen undergoes a political maturation that sees him transform from a starry-eyed idealist to a guilt-driven cynic. The film paints a very ugly and cynical picture of modern American politics.
Political cynicism is unhealthy. Those societies that are engulfed in pessimism are often the ones we consider third world countries. But as we see in “The Ides of March,” sometimes the unjust realities of the electoral system are impossible to ignore. The backroom deal making, the cover-ups and the mud slinging do not make for an environment where it is easy to do the right thing.
That’s what “The Ides of March” does best. It shows the inner mechanics and machinations of a modern political campaign. Some of what happens after the aforementioned twist is overly dramatized, but you may be surprised that much of the rest of the movie is not far from reality. When you have a high-stakes and high-profile campaign like the one in the movie, there is usually a lot of drama.
Despite the fact that director George Clooney (who also plays the part of the presidential candidate) is unabashedly liberal in his personal life, the movie avoids partisan politics. There is one scene that has a swipe at Republicans but every one of the characters in the movie is a Democrat. Clooney smartly shows that no party is immune to dirty tricks.
That’s all well and good, but I don’t think the dirty tricks will be surprising to most Americans. If this movie had come out in 2008 during Obama’s campaign of hope, it may have been more important. The movie would have had a rebellious message that warned against invisible optimism. But currently we live in a time in which, according to ABC News, the approval rating of Congress is the lowest it’s been since 1974. Most Americans have seen plenty of corruption and sex scandals on the news.
The cynical tone of “The Ides of March” is not too different from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Except we get to see “The Daily Show” four times a week and it is much funnier. “The Ides of March” is certainly well made and very well acted by all, but it stands as an inconsequential addition to our modern political culture.
If you're looking for some reason to be optimistic for our political system, you won't find it in this film. I don't say this often, but here’s hoping that “The Ides of March” is a movie that does not become timeless and instead merely becomes a historical document about how things were in 2011.