Liberal, left-wing Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney) is in the fight of his life, running for the Democratic nomination for president. He leads in the polls and the delegate count, but anything can happen in the week before the primary and a potential spoiler/kingmaker waits in the wings in the form of North Carolina Sen. Thompson (Jeffrey Wright).
Stakes are high. The old saying of "as Ohio goes, so goes the nation" implies that a win in the primary is the key. However, Sen. Thompson controls a large group of delegates who are likely to go to whatever candidate he endorses. So while trying to win Ohio, both Morris and his rival are at the same time clandestinely courting Thompson's favors, with New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marissa Tomei) doggedly looking for the scoop. With so much of modern politics playing out in the media, the results often hinge on the dance between campaign and reporter.
This complicated pas de deux with Tomei's reporter is performed on the campaign side by grizzled veteran campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and hotshot young press secretary Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling). (Which kind of makes it a pas de trois, but never mind.)
Gosling is at the center of the film, once again proving that he is more than capable of holding his own in a group of heavyweights, inhabiting Myers like he's been playing him on stage for years. In fact, "The Ides of March" is adapted from Beau Willimon's play "Farragut North."
Ambitious and aggressively idealistic, the only thing Myers cares about more than winning is believing in his candidate, which of course sets him apart from virtually all the real-world political operators working inside the D.C. Beltway and sets him up for a vicious life lesson.
As Gov. Morris, Clooney is at his best, with his campaign speeches and television appearances echoing Bill Clinton, but with a charm that leans more towards the urbane than the folksy. At one point Morris flat out tells a debate audience not to vote for him if they don't agree with his positions on the issues. Imagine!
It is in the private moments, however, that the true, cynical face of politics shows its face and it is in this cynicism that "Ides" finds its true footing. A throwback film in a sense, "Ides" is not the "Pretty Woman" look at politics and things get ugly.
An old saw is that working in politics is a great place to meet women and this holds true here, as Myers meets young, aggressive campaign intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) and their short and rather unsubtle flirtation leads to a series of events that, before they conclude, affect virtually everyone involved in dramatic ways and shakes Myers' beliefs to the core.
At one point the 30-year-old Myers brags that he's worked on more campaigns than most people have by the time they're 40, but Hoffman's Zara and equally seasoned rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) in turn play Myers like a violin, proving that "The X-Files" was right: Trust no one. To which I would add: and keep your mouth shut.
In essence, "Ides" is about tests. A test of idealism in the face of reality and a test of political resolve in the face of events that shake conviction. Gosling's Myers is playing with the big boys and navigating the often ethically muddy waters of presidential politics is not for the faint of heart.
It is also about compromise. How much of your ideals, integrity and reputation are you willing to sacrifice for "the greater good" and does that greater good actually exist? While the choices may be integrity vs. career and ethics vs. ambition, it's not always clear which choice will produce which result.
Despite Clooney's outspoken left-leaning politics, this is a film without a partisan agenda and one that both sides of the aisle ought to see and in which they may quite possibly see themselves. It's a entertaining, suspenseful and deeply cynical film, but politics is a cynical business and maybe this will be seen as a cautionary tale...though I doubt it.
Was that too cynical?