Smart and steady, The Ides of March is story of political disillusionment that ends where it began—except in a far, far darker mood. Working out of a corner campaign-office right out of Taxi Driver, Stephen (Ryan Gosling) is a young and brilliant assistant campaign director trying to lock the Democratic presidential nomination for Gov. Mike Morris (George Clooney), an impossible candidate—impossible not to love, maybe!—who's pro-gay marriage, admits to having no religion with the line "I am not a Christian," and thinks we should try to understand why our enemies hate us. Plus, he's played by George Clooney.
Gov. Morris feels like a mash-up of Obama and Clinton (and Kucinich, maybe?), though Beau Willimon, from whose play Farragut North this was adapted, has said the influence was Howard Dean. (Aside from its loquacity, Ides's theatrical origins are nearly invisible; the screenplay by Willimon, Clooney and Grant Heslov feels less opened up than like an original screenplay.) Regardless of who inspired what, there are lots of details in the movie that, repurposed, would feel like real history: calculated VP picks, a rivalry resolved by an offer of secretary of state, sex with interns, a Shepherd Fairey-style campaign poster, and backhanding scheming that makes Democrats look downright Republican.
The cynicism that underlies idealism is Ides's subject—the tragic weaknesses and corruptibility of individuals trying to build societies better than themselves. Clooney is turning into a real Old Liberal Lion of a filmmaker, but also a respectably earnest one: his underlying concern in adapting this material seems to be the danger of treating politics like a game-like entertainment, like spectacle. (The movie opens with preparing a stage for a debate—lights, mics, monitors, risers—that might as well be the beginning of a backstage musical.) The twisty drama that unfolds in Ides is a microcosmic example of how meaningless political machinations have real effects on people's lives. As that old protest slogan went: Bush Lies, People Die.