The Ides of March (15)

Cinematic clichés abound in this campaign thriller.

The Ides of March (15)
dir: George Clooney

Take a liberal American movie star whose integrity is uncompromised by his pin-up status. Put him in a grown-up film that balances its
serious commentary on the political system with a knowing comic tone. Throw in enough healthy cynicism to flatter the audience. What have you got?

Well, you've got The Candidate, starring Robert Redford as an incrementally disillusioned Democratic hopeful, or Bulworth, with Warren Beatty as a suicidal Democratic senator who starts telling the truth to voters. It's in the spirit of such films that George Clooney has directed and co-written The Ides of March, which proposes that some politicians might be self-serving, even hypocritical. All I can say is thank goodness this isn't a piece of promenade theatre: it's best to be sitting down if you're going to receive a shock like that.

Clooney plays Mike Morris, governor of Pennsylvania, who is campaigning to be the Democrats' presidential candidate. We barely glimpse his rival, but then this isn't about the puppet show so much as the puppeteers manipulating the marionettes and one another. Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the rising star behind the scenes of the campaign, believes that his man is the liberal dream made flesh. A seen-it-all reporter (Marisa Tomei) warns him not to get "all goose-bumpy" about Morris, but nobody comes right out and says, "Look what happened with Clinton" or, "Don't get your hopes up - he could be another Obama", just as no one ever discourages the teenagers in a slasher film from frolicking at night on an abandoned campsite by saying: "Has no one here seen any Friday the 13th movies?"

There are some promising characters to distract us while we wait for the scales to fall from Stephen's eyes. Morris's campaign manager, Paul Zara, is a stubby pro who probably smells of day-old machine coffee. Who else could play him but Philip Seymour Hoffman, the puce-faced actor with three names and 300 ways of expressing anxiety? Paul Giamatti, Hoffman's only rival for the title of America's Greatest Sad-Sack, plays Zara's opposite number, Tom Duffy. Whenever the two of them appear in the same scene, there's a high risk that any fortysomething men within a ten-mile radius will experience stomach ulcers and a midlife crisis. ("Giamatti" would work very nicely as a collective noun - "a Giamatti of sad-sacks". Possibly even better than the current favourite, a travelodge.)

Unfortunately, Hoffman and Giamatti aren't given much more to do than huff and puff and blow the hero's preconceptions away. The screenplay (based on Beau Willimon's play Farragut North) is not without merit. Running through it is the idea that politics demands the surrender of identity. Stephen flirts with an intern, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), whom he refers to variously as "Mary" and "the cleaning lady". Morris jokingly calls Stephen "Paul" when he thinks he's trying to smuggle through one of Paul's campaign ideas, and calls his own wife "Stephen" when he suspects her of doing the same on Stephen's behalf. One character uses a dead person's mobile phone so that it appears the deceased is calling. "Excuse me while I disappear," croons a lounge pianist aptly.

The vanishing motif extends to the film, which never goes for originality when the anonymous or tried and tested will do. How many more times will we have to see the face of a morally divided man half-concealed by shadow, or a clandestine negotiation taking place on a bench by a river?There's also the problem that the film doesn't spin its web of intrigue terribly wide. Even "web" is probably an overstatement. It's more a cat's cradle of intrigue.

There's a change of genre in the picture's fav­our when it switches from fast-talking political screwball to paranoid thriller, promising a kind of North By Northwest Wing. But Clooney is so worried we'll miss the left turn that he heralds it with sombre musical cues. I don't know what it is with him and directing; I rather wish he wouldn't. The Ides of March isn't embarrassingly inept like his last film, Leatherheads, but nor is it moredistinguished than an average TV movie. Clooney is a handsome, charismatic actor who can get big studios to green-light his shopping list. Can't he accept those limitations?

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?