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Thursday 22 March 2018

Review: The Ides of March * * *

(15A, general release)

Ryan Gosling is a brilliant political strategist but his character is underwritten
Ryan Gosling is a brilliant political strategist but his character is underwritten

Paul Whitington

It's not a huge reach to imagine George Clooney as a politician. He has appeared on the hustings for various Democrats, and enjoyed cozy chats with senators and presidents, and in The Ides of March he plays a Pennsylvania governor who's on the verge of securing the Democratic Presidential nomination.

Mike Morris is a charismatic liberal who preaches tolerance, inclusiveness and environmental rectitude and looks like the best thing since sliced bread. He has certainly impressed Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), a hugely talented junior campaign manager who thinks that Morris might just go all the way and make a real difference.

Clooney directs and co-wrote The Ides of March, a political drama in the line of films such as Michael Ritchie's The Candidate. In ways, it's more ambitious than that 1972 Robert Redford vehicle, which flogged the fairly self-evident notion that politics corrupts and corrodes all who engage with it. As its title suggests, Clooney's film has more Shakespearean themes in its sights, and the central dramatic figure is not Clooney's suave candidate but the young man who has taken the huge risk of believing in him.

Meyers is quick and formidably intelligent and has proved himself a precociously brilliant political strategist. Thanks to him, Morris's campaign has gathered pace and he looks set to win the Democratic nomination if he can sway the vote in Ohio.

In his camp is seasoned, spiky campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), but in their way stand wily Arkansas senator Ted Pullman and his manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti).

Zara and Duffy cordially detest each other, and as the two camps struggle to gain control in Ohio, Duffy manages to throw a spanner in the works. He phones Meyers and asks him for a meeting, at which he offers the young campaigner a job in "the winning camp".

Meyers declines, but when Zara finds out that Meyers had met with his rival he's furious -- as Duffy had planned. Campaign managers work for years for an elusive shot at the White House, and Zara, who was already threatened by Meyers's talent, uses the meeting with Duffy as an excuse to turn on the young man.

Evan Rachel Wood plays a pretty young intern to whom Meyers takes a shine, but the film's sombre, stately mood tells us that this is not a tale of happy endings. In ways, The Ides of March is less a movie about politicians than the people who toil behind the scenes to get them elected.

Clooney's character is something of a cypher, and doesn't even spring to life when his mettle is tested in a decisive climax. It's the back-room boys who take centre stage here, and at times the hissed exchanges between Gosling, Giamatti and Seymour Hoffman are reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin and The West Wing.

Somehow, though, The Ides of March never really gets going as a drama. An impressive, sharply constructed intro promises Machiavellian pleasures to come, but, despite the efforts of a heavyweight cast, the Shakespearean grandeur fails to materialise. Gosling's character is underwritten, Clooney's politician is a cardboard cutout with whom it is impossible to engage, and the film fatally loses impetus just when it should be at its most gripping.

As you plough through The Ides of March, the thing you're really waiting for is a confrontation between Messrs Giamatti and Seymour Hoffman, two actors who could invest an ad for soap powder with grandeur. Here, you feel, are a pair of characters who know what politics is all about and might have some interesting things to say to one another when they finally deign to clash.

Sadly, they never do, and their frustrating separation typifies the mistakes of an enjoyable but strangely incomplete film that feels like an opportunity missed.

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