The Ides of March (2011) is the kind of mid-sized budgeted film that Hollywood studios don’t make anymore. It used to be a mainstream staple during the 1980s and into the 1990s, but with the collapse of the American economy in the 2000s, the studios tightened their belts and invested in sure-fire cash-cows like remakes, reboots and sequels. It’s a shame because, in some respects, George Clooney’s film is a spiritual cousin to one like Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts (1992), only playing it straight whereas the latter film was a satire. It’s no secret that Clooney is a politics junkie – his filmography is littered with topical efforts like the short-lived television show K Street (2003) and films like Syriana (2005) and The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009). The Ides of March, a drama about an idealistic staffer whose morals and integrity gets tested when he finds out that his boss, a Democratic presidential candidate isn’t what he appears to be, fits comfortably within Clooney’s body of work.
Filmed and released before Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, I wonder if The Ides of March was an expression of Clooney’s disillusionment with the President’s first term in office. So many people had high hopes when Obama got elected in 2008. There was the same kind of hope in the air when Bill Clinton first became President. However, in no time the honeymoon was over as Obama repeated butted heads with the Republicans who chipped away at any and all policies that he tried to push through the system. The Ides of March, with its backroom dealings and power-plays, affirms what most of us already know – the American political system is a corrupt machine fueled by money and is one that chews up and spits out idealistic people who want to make a difference.
Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is a junior campaign manager that believes his boss, Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), a Democratic presidential candidate, can make a positive difference in Washington, D.C. It’s one week away from the Ohio primary with Morris and Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell) in fierce competition with each other. Pullman is trailing Morris in delegates, but if the senator wins big then he can turn things around. Stephen works closely with Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Morris’ right-hand man who has seen his share of campaigns and is mentoring the young man. Paul is the world-weary campaign manager who’s seen it all before. He knows how to bullshit Morris and deflect persistent journalists like The New York Times’ Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) who work the campaign trail looking for newsworthy scoops.
Stephen becomes attracted to and gets romantically involved with a beautiful intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood). Everything seems to be going swimmingly for him until he gets a phone call from Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), Pullman’s campaign manager who tells Stephen that he’s working for the wrong man and he should come work for him. Tom lays out a pretty convincing argument – good enough that it rattles Stephen. This is the first of several complications that make the young manager question his beliefs as they pertain to Morris’ campaign.
2011 was a very good year for Ryan Gosling as he starred in two very different and well-received films, Drive and The Ides of March. With the latter, he graduated to the big leagues acting opposite heavyweights like George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti and held his own. In fact, Gosling shows decent range as Stephen goes from idealistic staffer to someone whose belief system is shaken to its core. Make no mistake, he isn’t naïve, but rather idealistic and really believes that Morris can make a difference. Gosling plays a credible campaign manager, getting the lingo down cold and conveying the kind of confidence that allows Stephen to help manage Morris’ campaign. Initially, he’s on top of the world and things look great, but when the campaign hits a roadblock and he faces a personal moral dilemma, Gosling does a good job showing Stephen gradually unraveling. It’s a juicy role that allows the actor to shift gears from moments of levity to romance, with his initial meet-cute with Molly, to drama when things go bad for his character.
Gosling is ably supported by veteran actors like Hoffman and Giamatti, who turn in typically solid work as the two warring sides that fight for Stephen’s political soul. Each guy has their own agenda, their own angle that they play and Stephen has to figure out whose side he’s on. Hoffman and Giamatti are given powerhouse speeches to sink their teeth into and devour, which is what you want to see these skilled actors do. The cast is really an embarrassment of riches and unfortunately talented actors like Jeffrey Wright, as a senator that can put either candidate over the top, and Marisa Tomei, playing a tough-talking reporter, are given way-too little screen-time, but like the pros they are, make the most of what they’re given.
Evan Rachel Wood is quite good as the young, gorgeous intern with a deep, dark secret. Initially, Molly seems like a wise-beyond-her-years woman, but there is a fragility that lurks underneath the surface and comes out when Stephen discovers her secret. The fall-out is devastating for her and Wood does a nice job of showing how it affects her character. George Clooney has the slick patter all successful politicians peddle in down cold. With his good looks and perfect smile, the veteran actor is well-cast as a presidential hopeful.
Clooney has directed several films now and this one may be his most assured with striking images like Paul and Stephen having a conversation in silhouette, dwarfed by an enormous American flag hanging behind them. The symbolism is apt as the two men are small cogs in the massive political machine. Clooney thankfully resists the urge to include traditional thriller elements, like car chases and assassinations in favor or a more realistic approach.
The origins for The Ides of March lie in the unsuccessful run for Congress that George Clooney’s father, Nick, made in 2004. Clooney remembered his father talking about how “uncomfortable, embarrassing and at times humiliating,” he felt asking for campaign money. Clooney also saw his father struggle and “lose pretty terribly. No matter how pure you try to keep it, you’re always going to have to take meetings with people you don’t like. I got a real sense of how ugly it is – and that was just for a congressional seat.” Furthermore, Governor Morris’ proposal to outlaw the internal combustion engine in ten years so that the United States would not have to rely on foreign oil came from columns that Nick wrote for the Cincinnati Post. Clooney and Grant Heslov began working on a screenplay about a “bait and switch” conservative Republican who opposes the death penalty after getting the presidential nomination.
In the summer of 2004, young writer Beau Willimon wrote the first draft of his play Farragut North, which was based on his experiences working on the staff of presidential hopeful Howard Dean in Iowa. It was a fictionalized look behind the scenes of a presidential campaign. The play premiered in New York City in 2008 and then moved to Los Angeles where it eventually came to the attention of Clooney and Heslov, partners in their own production company. After reading it, the two men felt that they could merge their ideas with Willimon’s play.
In translating the play into a film, Clooney and Heslov made several changes, most significantly that Governor Morris, the candidate, became an actual character as opposed to the play where he did not exist. They also changed the name because Clooney found Farragut North, “a little too specific.” It became The Ides of March because the primary in the film took place on March 15. The new title also referenced some of the Shakespearean themes in the film. Even though the play is set in Iowa, Clooney and Heslov moved it to Ohio. Clooney said, “Ohio has always been the key state. I put it in Cincinnati because I know it really well.” It also didn’t hurt that the state gave the production tax credits.
Principal photography was originally planned for 2008 and then Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. Clooney and Heslov felt that it wasn’t the right time for such a cynical film. After a year, the optimism over Obama’s election began to wane enough that they decided to make the film. With the pedigree of Clooney as director, he and Heslov had no problem getting the cast they wanted. Ryan Gosling was drawn to the film not only because he was intrigued by the character of Stephen and the story, but also the chance to work with Clooney. Philip Seymour Hoffman was attracted to the script and its insights into human behavior. Paul Giamatti also thought the script was “incredible well written. The rhythms are really specific, and the language.” Clooney jokingly said that he took on the role of Morris because no one else wanted to, “It’s not the most fun part.” He knew what “I wanted the candidate to do and be. I also seemed right for the age of the character.”
To prepare for the film, Clooney told production designer Sharon Seymour to watch several campaign documentaries and they talked about how the design should look realistic. She also talked to political consultants from Ohio and Washington about the look of political campaigns and how everyone wants their candidate to look the best. They also took a page out of Obama’s successful advertising campaign by creating posters for Governor Morris in the same style as the President’s when he was making a run for the White House.
Clooney got his cast and crew in the mindset of the film by encouraging them to watch several campaign documentaries, including The War Room (1993), which examined Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign; Journeys with George (2003), George W. Bush’s 2000 run for president; and By the People: The Election of Barack Obama (2009). Stuart Stevens, a Republican campaign strategist, political advisor and media consultant, was also brought in to help the production. Clooney said, “We would send him things and say, tell us where we’re going wrong. Tell us what you would do in this situation.”
Principal photography began during the late winter in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Clooney shot on location where much of the story was actually set. Three weeks into filming, the production moved to Detroit where all the interiors for the Pullman and Morris headquarters were shot. In addition, several downtown and suburban locations were used.
The Ides of March received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and praised Clooney’s directing: “He draws back from action and plunges into intrigue. Here he conceals certain of Stephen’s inner workings … to great effect, as the young man reveals an amorality that surprises even the hardened pros he works under. The last shot of the film, a closeup of Ryan Gosling, held for a long time, is chilling.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The Ides of March has true storytelling verve, but it also plays like a rite of exorcism. It pulses along like an update of The Candidate fused with a political Sweet Smell of Success – it’s got that kind of nourish fizz.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan found the film to be “an intelligent, involving picture that feels all too real – until it doesn’t.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “With Clooney’s connivance, and in a film stuffed with savvy work by veteran players, Gosling lures the movie’s emotional center away from Morris and into Stephen’s mind, where angels swim and demon’s lurk.”
USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and Claudia Puig wrote, “Gosling’s Meyers is a complex blend of idealist and opportunist. While he truly believes in the populist candidate he works for, he is not above seduction – sexual or professional.” However, in his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “More likely, though, you will find it more comforting than inspiring. It deals mainly in platitudes and abstractions, with just enough detail to hold your interest and keep you hoping for something more.” The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday wrote, “Clooney does a good job opening up the ideas Willimon first explored onstage, but the result is still a pessimistic truth so universally acknowledged that it doesn’t bear repeating however stylishly.”
The Ides of March is a film about the hard choices and compromises as it shows the kind of deals politicians have to make if they want to advance to positions of power. The higher the position, the bigger the deal that has to be made because the stakes are higher. And when you’re running for president the stakes are the highest. American politics is not for the faint of heart. It is chock full of negative advertisements, backroom deals and compromises. Knowledge is power, especially insider information, which can be used to muscle people out of influential positions and manipulate powerful politicians.
To be fair, The Ides of March doesn’t tell us anything new about American politics, but it isn’t trying to do that. The film tells an engrossing story with intriguing characters and that is enough. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Clooney’s film ends on a deliciously ambiguous note as Stephen is armed with a potentially damaging piece of information and whether he uses it or not is left up to our imagination. It seems beside the point because what really matters is how he has changed over the course of the film. He’s gone from an idealist full of warmth and humor to someone colder and more ruthless, having witnessed just how ugly politics can get (and he hasn’t even gotten to the White House!). The question that film leaves with us at the end is, has Stephen become absorbed by the system or is he going to wreck it from the inside?
Cornet, Roth. “Interview: Grant Heslov on The Ides of March, George Clooney and Politics.” Screen Rant.
The Ides of March Production Notes. October 7, 2011.
Kiesewetter, John. “George Clooney Tapped Cincinnati Roots to Make Ides of March.” Cincinnati Inquirer. October 2, 2011.