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If you were trying to coax a promising young mind away from the open sewer of national politics, "The Ides of March" makes a fine argument for, say, medical school over the campaign trail. Based on the play "Farragut North" by Beau Willimon, who shares the screenwriting credit with Grant Heslov and George Clooney, and directed by Clooney, "Ides" follows a campaign media tactician named Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) as he tries to steer a Pennsylvania governor named Mike Morris (Clooney, naturally) through the late Ohio primary on the way to the Democratic presidential nomination. All that stands in Morris' way is an Arkansas senator named Pullman, running behind Morris but like Morris scrambling for the endorsement of an also-ran from North Carolina named Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), whose delegates could swing the bid. With a Republican ticket in disarray, it's presumed that whoever wins Ohio will coast to the presidency.
Morris gives George Clooney the chance to direct George Clooney playing the ideal candidate as imagined by George Clooney. Bold and plainspoken, Morris stumps for public service, energy independence and gay marriage as a civil right. Despite having worked in politics his whole life, Stephen sees the candidate and swoons with an idealists' fervor. His boss on the Morris campaign, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is older, paunchier and less starry-eyed; he plays foil to the manic Pullman campaign chief Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who lets it be known early on that he has an eye toward perhaps poaching Stephen for himself.
As if the possibility of beginning a career looking like Gosling and ending it looking like Hoffman or Giamatti weren't bad enough, "Ides" further discourages a career in politics by rolling out the kind of sly 20ish campaign intern — this one is Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) — who drags upheaval in her wake. One of the takeaways of "Ides" becomes, early on, that no one offers up a good thing for free, and yet, resistance is futile. Flattery gets people everywhere with Stephen.
There are a few worthwhile reveals in "Ides," but any film that takes place over just a matter of days risks a stunted emotional arc, and in some ways "Ides" falters by taking us on too short a journey. Gosling's Stephen begins the film a bit more naïve than he should've, given that he's working high in a presidential campaign, and he does shed that vestigial innocence as people and events turn against him. Yet we watch him harden without evolving. (Come to think of it, that really does sound like politics.) For as much fun as he is to watch, Gosling here, as usual, stays strangely aloof. For as much time as is devoted to Stephen, he remains, at his core, inaccessible, and boringly so.
"Ides" may actually be more interesting as a warped polemic. When Tom Duffy says he's tired of watching Democrats lose because they won't descend into the mud with the elephants, you get a whiff of the film's inverted sanctimony. The tension between what the candidate and what his staffers will do to win must shift over the course of the film, and the impression you're left with is that the filmmakers, too, would rather see Democrats adopt a realpolitik not above brawling or bargaining. Party loyalty, in this world, is paramount, because the men themselves will always disappoint; the script nods in the direction of Bill Clinton without much subtlety on that point. In "Ides," having a compromised character is a badge. It means you're not above actually winning.