Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), the political media consultant at the center of The Ides of March, knows how to handle his business. Sure, he might believe that the man he's working for, Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris (George Clooney), is the best candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. But he's also just fine with feeding a specious allegation about their opponent to the media, just so it will require the time spent to fight it off. If you're looking for a starry-eyed idealist whose utopian dreams may be crushed by harsh reality, look elsewhere.
In the abstract, director/co-writer Clooney has an intriguing variation on "surrendering principles to the dirty game of politics" narratives like The Candidate: What if the hero has very few principles to begin with? But it's no small trick to bring an audience along on that kind of character arc, and The Ides of March can't quite navigate the narrow channel between "calculating bastard" and "even more calculating bastard."
The principal action takes place before a crucial primary in Ohio. There are plenty of complex details for Myers and Morris' campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to contend with. A crucial endorsement requires careful negotiation. And when Myers becomes aware of Morris' involvement in a potentially devastating scandal, he's forced to launch into rapid damage control.
Through the film's first half, Clooney and company keep The Ides of March moving fast enough to avoid the danger facing any political drama: losing viewers in wonky chatter. It's always clear what's at stake, and the punchy script provides entertaining situations. Best of all, the film captures the manic energy of people trying to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle.
But The Ides of March pivots around the way Myers reacts when cornered, and that's where it hits a wall. Gosling's taciturn presence is perfect for roles like his mysterious protagonist in Drive, but here we can never quite get behind Myers' slick, unruffled exterior, and that's a problem. Does he really believe in the man he's working for? If not, is this anything besides a cynical look at the petty interpersonal dramas that could help determine whom we choose as our leader?
Despite the Shakespearean overtones of the title, The Ides of March doesn't focus its attentions where they seem to be most crucial - on whether Myers is about to sell his soul, or whether he's long since offered it up on the eBay of contemporary politics and is just waiting out the end of the auction.