Adapting Beau Willimon’s play “Farragut North” for the big screen, George Clooney’s “Ides of March” starts so strongly — from the jump, it’s an truly entertaining mix of Aaron Sorkin and Sidney Lumet, where idealism and pragmatism fight dirty in the dimmer corners of the halls of power — that the film’s mis-steps later on are not just disappointing but depressing. Clooney has, as in his earlier films, assembled an amazing cast here. Ryan Gosling is a political operative under Phillip Seymour Hoffman trying to get George Clooney’s Governor Morris the Democratic Presidential nomination, with Max Minghella and Evan Rachel Wood as junior staffers, Marisa Tomei as a member of the press and Paul Giamatti as Hoffman’s opposite for the other contender.
Casting, however, isn’t filming, and while Clooney has — as ever — assembled a superb technical staff, the screenplay is where things go awry. Cinematographer Phaedon Pappamichael (“Sideways,” “Walk the Line,” “Knight and Day”) captures the wintry haze of battleground state Ohio and the plywood pomp-and-circumstance of the modern campaign trail, while editor Stephen Mirrione (“Traffic,” “Ocean’s 13,” “Go”) cuts the close-clipped conversations superbly. Clooney-as-director also earns credit for opening the play up visually, walking the line between showy excess and artlessly hurling theatrical blocking up on-screen. (A moment where we slide in and out of three parallel offices as information passes back and forth is superb, as is a hidden meeting in the shabby privacy of a shaded stairwell.)
The jostle and bump of public pronouncements and private secrets, of press releases and closely-held information is a major part of the fun and charm of the film. At the same time, with no small sense of regret, it must be said there’s a hole in the plot of “The Ides of March,” and while it cannot be discussed in great detail for fear of ruining the film’s central set of surprises and secrets, it is also so clumsy and gigantic that it is less like a pinhole in a cup that lets in disbelief and more like a gaping chasm in the side of a plane that results in a crash. (Let’s just say that, for “Ides of March” to work as written, cops, coroners and journalists in Ohio have to be remarkably incurious illiterates with poor vision.) Willimon, Clooney and frequent Clooney collaborator Grant Heslov adapted Willimon’s play — and changed it substantially — and the fact that three separate set of eyes didn’t catch so glaring a problem is both human and disheartening.
Some will suggest that a picayune obsession with plot details is beneath an ambitious political drama about tactics and cynics, polling and governing; I think that if “Ides of March” is going to take a certain dramatic route — especially a dramatic route like that of a thriller, where one mistake can mean disaster — it needs to be as cautious of the potential for disaster in that route as it is excited about the possibilities that route offers. And bluntly, there are moments here that are so very good — like Gosling, livid and silent, thinking a mile a minute while his heart is stopped dead, for one example, a conversation between candidate Clooney and his supportive-but-stressed wife Jennifer Ehle for another — and I could watch scenes of Giamatti and Hoffman being profane and pointed, brusque and blunt, outraged and outrageous, all day.
“Ides of March,” for the most part, is an engaging and exciting look at the machine that grinds and jolts beneath the smoother images offered up in public forums and campaign ads, and at the people behind political candidates. It also, like any politician, makes promises that soar on wings of language to suggest it can do the job, and it’s too bad that the brief-but-significant very real plot problems in the film make it feel a little like a lame duck with a crippled wing.