There are some tv shows that capture an idea, a time, a profession, so vividly and in such detail that for a while all other variations on the theme will seem like mere pretenders to the throne.
The Wire has made all other portrayals of drug gangs and corrupt officials into a sketch that only skims the surface; Mad Men has made subsequent glamourisations of 1950s’ cigar smoke and sexism look like a cheap cartoon. So it was brave of George Clooney to step into the ring and put The Ides of March up against The West Wing. Aaron Sorkin’s fast-paced, quick-talking, utterly compelling series revealed what US politics could be: dramatic, intricate and above all exciting.
Which is exactly what The Ides of March is not. Exciting. It is – and I speak as a US politics junkie here – boring. Maybe campaigning is boring. Or maybe it’s balls-to-the-wall, burning-numb-from-the-caffeine-high haven’t-had-a-good-night’s-sleep-since-that-one-motel-in-Tucson madness. I think it’s the latter. But I know that only the latter makes for a good movie.
Mike Morris (Clooney, who is also directing) is running for the Democratic nomination. He is the charismatic Governor of Arkansas, the man giving America back hope and dignity. Doing the dirty work behind the scenes are Stephen (Ryan Gosling) and Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and though it’s Morris’ campaign, it’s Stephen’s story, as he gets sucked into a war of interests and loyalties between his job, his private life and the rival campaign, managed by Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti).
It’s basically the story of Stephen’s corruption, his fall from wide-eyed idealist into the corruption and corrosion of professional politics, brought about by a scandal that hits Morris’ campaign and that Stephen is simultaneously deeply involved in and – if he plays it right – uniquely placed to benefit from. But here’s the thing: this film is 101 minutes long, and the scandal arrives an hour in. Once it does hit, the film picks up a modicum of pace, but before then it’s been slow and stately when it should have been anything but.
Gosling does his usual quiet, mopey schtick. Sometimes, like in Drive, this works great -- but not here. Here he simply has no energy to him. Clooney is as charismatic as ever, Giamatti shows up once in a while and does his best to inject some of his neurotic, jumpy brand of energy, and once, just once, Philip Seymour Hoffman gets to really let rip and remind us how brilliant he is, and how brilliant this film might have been.
The worst of it is that the lack of pace and urgency in the film translates into a lack of passion in the campaign: we struggle to understand why you would want to put heart and soul and backstabbing into getting Morris elected, why you would let politics become your life.
The race to be President of the Unites States of America is the greatest show on earth, and it has the kind of inherent, Shakespearian levels of drama (note the title, folks – if there’s a production of Julius Caesar showing anywhere near you, go see that instead) that almost nothing else in real life does – just look at Herman Cain, being torn apart as I write by allegations that are ineluctably dramatic and political and personal all at once. This movie somehow manages to take all this and make a slow, subdued and stilted tale. Go (re)watch The West Wing instead.
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The Ides Of March Trailer
A scene from The West Wing (no knowledge of the show necessary. But seriously. Go watch Episode One now)