George Clooney's political drama, "The Ides Of March", has at least one respectable quality: It's never bias. Clooney, an infamous ultra-leftist, is surprisingly equitable in his treatment of politicians from Right and Left. Basically, he makes abundantly clear his general distaste for both.
The allegorical figure at the center of this campaign thriller is Democratic presidential-nominee hopeful and populist favorite Mike Morris (Clooney), a golden boy with a killer smile and all the answers (apparently, electric cars will end terrorism). At least, that's what his idealistic junior campaign manager, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), likes to think. Of course, there's no room for idealism in politics (silly rabbit). Early on, when the lad rendezvous at a bar with New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), their exchange foreshadows what's to come: Meyers boyishly decrees Morris "The One" and the more seasoned Horowicz retorts with a line the director himself is clearly thinking, "Eventually, they'll always let you down."
Is Clooney venting his disappointment about a certain lame-duck president? It would seem so. And his negativism encroaches on just about every frame of the picture (at one point, Meyers stands silhouetted wistfully against the biggest American flag since "Patton"; the shot is held too long, just in case we didn't get the message). Sopping with portent and cynicism, "The Ides Of March" is hardly an exhilarating and insightful piece of character driven storytelling; rather, it's a vehicle for Clooney to peddle his political malcontent, and do it with about as little grace and subtlety as humanly possible.
To Clooney, politics is a game of secrets and lies. The film's narrative path traces Meyers' journey from innocent believer to hardened player, and his "LA Confidential" moment of devious opportunism plays out so epically we can almost see Clooney giddily squirming in his director's chair. Paul Giamatti and Phillip Seymour Hoffman show up as opposing campaign managers. Their chess match -- with naive pawn Stephan lying in the middle with a moralist migraine -- makes up the film's initial conflict -- until a fetching young intern, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), raises the stakes with her promiscuity. (I'd warn about spoilers if it weren't already so tiresomely obvious).
For as much screen time as Molly-the-slutty-intern gets, she's little more than a plot device. Her peculiar behavior propels the film forward, so the script (by Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon) uses her age (20, by the way) as an easy excuse for its contrivances. In fact, the film is highly calculated. Like a politician (or a bad college professor) it talks at us, telling us how we should feel instead of evoking those feelings. Its pontification keeps us from ever identifying enough with Meyers to understand why losing the Democratic ticket would be such a national catastrophe. If we do care, it's because Clooney's ominous, over-dramatic visual style makes us think we should -- and that's cheating.
Admittedly, "The Ides Of March" is so professionally made and has such strong actors across the board, that it continuously looks great. But, ultimately, it's not. It's too cynical, witless and opaque to resonate as a profound work of insider political drama. Clooney reaches for the Machiavellian and the individualistic in the same stroke. The brackish clash suits his questionable interests. But the fact that the film can't communicate anything cogent through the murk certainly does not.