En español | George Clooney plays a supporting role in The Ides of March, the gritty political thriller that he directed and cowrote, but his character, presidential hopeful Mike Morris, is squarely at its center. Clooney's personal character is evident as well, both in the ringing words of liberal populism that Morris speaks, and in the moral outrage Clooney clearly feels over a system that seems to reward the cynical and corrupt the true believer.
See also: A look back at George Clooney's career.
When we first meet Morris's media specialist, Stephen Meyers — played at the outset with wide-eyed sincerity by Ryan Gosling — he is desperately trying to help his man overcome some tough political odds prior to the Ohio Democratic primary. From Meyers's perspective it's a fair fight, and he's convinced that all he needs to do is sharpen some of the candidate's points and effectively channel his message. He believes the best man will win … and he also believes, with all his heart, that his man is the best man.
It doesn't take long, of course, for intrigue and conflicts of interest to arise — most notably from the opposition's campaign manager (a wonderfully scheming Paul Giamatti) … and more subtly in the lovely form of a campaign intern, played with wry vulnerability by Evan Rachel Wood. It seems unlikely that so smart a cookie as Meyers would run around Cincinnati eagerly swallowing bait so willingly, but Gosling does such a nice job of endearing himself to the audience that we're willing to accept his gullibility every step of the way. Only when the true awful extent of his betrayal is revealed does Meyers finally come crashing to Earth. From that point on, Gosling is a wonder to watch as Meyers steadily descends into the very image of the hollow, soulless functionaries he once disdained (his miserable future is embodied by his mentor, a veteran political hack played with chain-smoking, grumbly authenticity by Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Clooney's vision of America's political fortunes is dreary indeed — such pessimism is, of course, nothing new to Hollywood filmmakers. I recently sat through Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and was struck by how empty my feeling of triumph was after Jimmy Stewart's rousing Senate speech: Smith's victory over Washington corruption plays more like fantasy than reality, and we turn away from the screen thinking not. "What a great political system we have," but instead, "Our only hope would be a whole Congress of Jimmy Stewarts."
Clooney doesn't even hint at a Capraesque outcome. He'd have us believe betrayal and selfishness are congenital defects of American democracy. The dark souls in the movie would defend their actions as dictated by conviction, or even necessity. But as Cassius dejectedly observed around the time of a more famous ides of March, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves ..."