George Clooney is a political junkie. The son of a newsman explored the intersection of government and journalism in the Oscar-winning Good Night and Good Luck. Now he’s taking on presidential campaigns in The Ides of March, a political thriller that fits the feel of this election season—more dark and cynical than hope and change.
Talking from his home in Lake Como, Italy, as he prepared for the movie’s launch at the Venice Film Festival on Aug. 31, Clooney framed his latest effort as actor, director, and screenwriter in almost classical terms: “The story is about ambition—do the ends justify the means? At what price do we sell our souls?”
Ides stars Ryan Gosling as a young presidential campaign aide forced to confront an illusion-shattering scandal on the eve of a pivotal March primary fight in Ohio. It’s a tight little morality tale on the campaign trail that manages to be both timely and universal.
Clooney sets himself up as the anti-hero, Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris, a man who “was decorated by Bush Senior in the first Gulf War and then protested the second.” He is flanked by a Hall of Fame character actor cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti nail their portrayals of dueling campaign managers; Jeffrey Wright is a calculating southern senator angling for a spot on the ticket; and Marisa Tomei is pitch-perfect as harried political reporter Ida Horowicz.
But the real revelations are Ryan Gosling, whose character Stephen follows a Michael Corleone-esque evolution in the cut-throat world of politics and Evan Rachel Wood as the ill-fated ingénue, Molly, who combines take-your-breath-away hotness with a well-timed giggle and snort.
Ides captures the relentless pace of a presidential campaign, the opportunism and unsentimentally beneath the red, white, and blue bunting. It takes the camera off stage into the overcrowded offices and dingy motels, the competing fuels of caffeine and alcohol, the ego and exhaustion and, of course, the campaign sex. Most accurately, it reflects real-life ambiguities—no candidate is all angel or all devil, and Clooney clearly enjoys playing both sides. In the end, Ides presents the audience with ethical questions: What would you do to get ahead? Can you justify doing something wrong to achieve a greater good in the future? What will you forgive in a political leader?
Americans might think they see traces of the sordid John Edwards saga in The Ides of March, but Clooney began adapting the script with Grant Heslov from Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North back in 2007 and then shelved it. “We had to stop it when we realized that the film is so cynical and everyone was so hopeful,” Clooney explains. “It only took about a year before we said, ‘OK, we can make this movie again.’ ”
Like death and taxes, sex scandals and cynicism are dependably cyclical in politics—and they transcend all borders. “It’s funny how everyone takes to heart their own version of the story,” Clooney says, reflecting on audience reaction at a few international screenings before the film’s official launch at the Venice Film Festival on Aug. 31. “In Italy, people think you’re trying to say something about Berlusconi. In France, they think its DSK. And now in Germany, there’s this ‘wonder kid,’ Angela Merkel’s guy [Christian von Boetticher, a conservative politician who resigned his position this August after admitting to a Facebook affair with a 16-year old girl]. These are just universal themes.”
In Ides, political stereotypes are set up and then smashed. Democrats might cheer Clooney’s campaign dialogue (“I am neither a Christian, nor an atheist, I'm not Jewish or Muslim ... my religion is written on a piece of parchment called the Constitution”) but Republicans might find they have the last laugh. There are thought-provoking policy asides, like a proposal for mandatory national service in exchange for college tuition, cynically justified by Gosling’s character because the people directly affected are not yet of voting age. It also deals directly with moral dilemma of abortion, without projecting ideology or theology onto the decision. “I feel like part of good story-telling is allowing the audience to participate,” Clooney says. “They have to make up their own mind on these issues.” The movie is likewise content to raise more questions that it answers.
As an Oscar-nominated actor, director, and screenwriter, Clooney has quietly placed himself in a career peer group that includes Orson Welles, John Cassavetes, and Woody Allen. In preparing this latest triple threat performance, Clooney took inspiration from some of his favorite political movies, including All the President’s Men (“the reason it's perfect is because we know how it ends before we go in and you're still chewing your fingernails off”) The Candidate (“Redford’s character is someone who starts out very good, loses his way, and finds his way again”) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (“It’s about a giant filibuster and corporate corruption in Congress … these themes keep coming back.”)
But Ides “really isn’t a political film,” Clooney explains.“If it was set on Wall Street, it would be the exact same characters doing the exact same thing. It’s just that politics raises the stakes so high.”
“My parents always said, ‘don’t come back and look me in the eye until you’ve done what’s right.’ And doing what’s right is sometimes the hardest way to move forward. It’s not anywhere near the easiest thing to do. And sometimes you’ll fail and feel like a jerk. Even at age 40 or 50,” Clooney concludes. “This idea of taking a shortcut—giving up what you believe, just for the sake of winning. My parents raised me to believe that the cost may be greater than the actual success.”
After almost a year outside the cinematic spotlight, Clooney will be hard to escape this fall—he’s also starring in Alexander Payne’s film The Descendants out on Nov. 23. Campaigns will be dominating headlines as Clooney fills movie screens. The Ides of March captures the disgust many Americans feel with the dysfunctional state of our politics, even as it introduces new flavors of betrayal. But beneath it all is a reminder that character counts, opening the door at least a crack to the possibility of being an idealist without illusions, even on a presidential campaign.