Stephen Myers knows his boss's talking points so well that he can stand in for him, reciting them as technicians adjust lights for the next presidential debate.
"My religion, what I believe in, is called the Constitution of the United States of America."
Myers (Ryan Gosling) has heard the line a hundred times, he believes it and he believes in the man who says it: his presidential candidate-boss, Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris (George Clooney).
The Ides of March, Clooney's latest civics lesson as actor and director, is a down and dirty politics-behind-closed-doors tale. It's about a campaign professional (Gosling) letting his idealism get in the way of his professionalism. And it's about disillusionment, ugly pragmatism, back-room deals and maneuvering in this mass media/social media/no secrets age.
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Kentucky native Clooney plays a candidate about to lock up the Democratic nomination. He needs the support of a key senator (Jeffrey Wright) who is angling for a political payoff. He needs all the cunning his campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) can manage, because Morris makes a big deal out of not making "those sorts of deals." And he needs the loyalty and idealism of Myers, a media mastermind who has brought him so close to his goal.
But Myers is distracted. First, there's the nagging New York Times reporter (Marisa Tomei).
Her: "You've really drunk the Kool-Aid."
Him: "It tastes delicious."
Her: "He will let you down. He's a politician. You used to know that before you got all goose-bumpy."
Myers is distracted by the too-cute, way-too-forward intern (Evan Rachel Wood). And he's letting the other guy's campaign manager get into his head. That manager is played by Paul Giamatti with a sinister, knowing sneer.
The Ides of March, based on Beau Willimon's 2008 play Farragut North, named for a subway stop in the center of Washington's lobbyist district, veers from high-minded political theater to cheap political melodrama. But a cast littered with this many Oscar winners, all in support of a less-self-conscious-than-usual Gosling, could never go far wrong.
The film, shot mostly in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, boasts pithy political banter and sexy "drinks after work" bar banter: "This is the big leagues, man. If you make a mistake, you lose the right to play."
Giamatti and Hoffman are beautifully matched opponents, balancing the picture the way on-the-make Wood and on-the-job Tomei do in female supporting roles.
And Clooney — cool, collected, committed and above it all — makes the perfect candidate. He and Gosling are matched as the smart, never-let-'em-see-you-sweat set, as opposed to the seething, sweating Giamatti and Hoffman.
The script, written by Clooney, Willimon and Grant Heslov, is not great. But it's a smart and high-minded film, wonderfully cast, with understated direction. Clooney, who has said he was inspired by his father Nick Clooney's unsuccessful 2004 run for Kentucky's 4th Congressional District, is good enough in the lead to stir talk of a political future. But he's good enough behind the camera to make one hope he'll commit to doing more of that, instead.