What is there to say about George Clooney’s The Ides of March, which opened last week to largely positive—if not glowing—reviews, and which is certain to be a key player—but perhaps not a lock—during Oscar season? Why is it so hard to know what there is to say? The Ides of March is smart, modest, solidly made, and doesn’t get bogged down in gimmicks, extraneous characters or plot contrivances. It is, somehow, both stylish and workmanlike, a throwback to the classy political thrillers of the 70s, like All the President’s Men. (It feels equally indebted to the psychologically charged noir films like Sweet Smell of Success, which center on an older man/younger man dynamic.) And it’s got a dynamite cast: Clooney himself as a charismatic Obama-like presidential candidate; Ryan Gosling (who can do no wrong this year, apparently) as his idealistic campaign manager; Philip Seymour Hoffman, doing a great job in one of the film’s several pissed-off blowhard roles; Paul Giamatti as the rival pissed-off blowhard; Marisa Tomei as a duplicitous New York Times reporter; and Evan Rachel Wood as a flirtatious campaign intern who knows more than she appears. All are excellent.
But what else about The Ides of March requires comment? While I commend its straight-forwardness and intelligence, it ultimately doesn’t leave us with much to say, think, or write about, and this may be its fatal weakness—that there’s not enough there to which we can return after it’s over. To be sure, Clooney and his co-writer have attempted to layer the film with reversals, moments of rich dramatic irony, and characters that serve as doubles for each other; in a tense scene late in the film, we’re meant to realize with a kind of blooming horror that Clooney and Gosling have become knitted together, bound by the same secrets and betrayals, and the two are made to mirror each other in a noir-ish shot/reverse-shot sequence that recalls the film’s Persona-like promotional image (half of Gosling’s face set next to half of Clooney’s). And there’s a quietly chilling moment when, through the use of an ominously ringing cell phone, Clooney seems to be doing a modern-day variation on Banquo’s ghost. The film’s title, after all, should be a tip-off that this film has Shakespearean aspirations—it wants to be the Julius Caesar of American political movies. So one can’t help but feel disappointed when it falls short of that goal. In this way its straight-forwardness begins to feel like a liability; it could use a little more ornamentation, more intricate detail. The revelations and ironies feel simply placed instead of dazzling. The more I think about The Ides of March and talk about it with other people, the less certain I am that it will live long in the memories of moviegoers (or Oscar voters). The film’s characters insist that you’ve got to play ugly if you want to win, but the film itself plays it safe, and pays for it.