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“Et Tu, Brute?”

Review: “The Ides of March”

Grade: B+ (RENT IT)

Back in 2006, when President Obama was still on the top of the world, he wrote in his bestseller The Audacity of Hope that an American politician may not “lie” per se, but “understands that there is no great reward in store for those who speak the truth, particularly when the truth may be complicated.”  The fact that the system facilitates political prevarication, Obama asserted, remains a sufficient obstacle to making American politics cleaner and more transparent.  George Clooney’s fourth directorial effort, “The Ides of March,” could serve as another reality-check to Obama’s loftier aspirations.  In many ways, it’s not far off from Sarah Palin’s snide rejoinder: “How’s that hopey-changey thing working out for ya?”

Still, the truth is actually quite uncomplicated in “The Ides of March,” but it’s the cover-ups and team-switching to protect the lying politician at the center of it all that powers Clooney’s indictment of a corrupt and corrosive political arena.  The truth is simple because it’s sexual in nature: no spoilers here, but suffice it to say that when a fresh-faced intern named Molly Stearns (played by Evan Rachel Wood), strolls onto the scene, men in power quickly come unglued, or rather, unbuttoned.  As erotic napalm, Wood reprises the vixen role she played so expertly in HBO’s reboot of “Mildred Pierce,” but she’s more vulnerable here and ultimately, tragic.  The script smartly piles it on, too, inasmuch as Stearns is the DNC chair’s daughter and soon an important player in the Ohio state primary.  Thankfully, Clooney’s film also treats its viewer like a grown-up; when Morris’s top aid gets the axe, for example, all we see is actor Philip Seymour Hoffman step inside the governor’s Suburban, then, without dialogue, exit to a rainy alleyway.

Adapted from a Broadway play, entitled Farragut North (2008), by Clooney’s longtime collaborator Beau Willimon (and Grant Heslov), who worked on campaigns for Schumer, Dean, and Hilary Clinton, “The Ideas of March” has the realist pulse of an exposé based on firsthand experience.  Our man-on-the-ground is Stephen Myers (played Ryan Gosling, who has more or less commanded the screen since the summer), a thirty-year-old campaign advisor to Clooney’s Mike Morris (a governor and presidential contender with a few skeletons in his closet).

“The Ides of March” is ultimately a cynical and disillusioning film in which Marisa Tomei, as a jaded Beltway reporter, speaks to its central beliefs.  “He’s a nice guy,” she says of Morris, “They’re all nice guys.  He’ll let you down sooner or later.”  Tomei is just one of the film’s great supporting actors: in addition to a Karl Roveian Hoffman – can’t someone in the costume department help Hoffman tie a necktie so it reaches his belt-buckle? – there’s Paul Giamatti as the top aide to Morris’s opponent and Jeffrey Wright (briefly) as another influential senator.  Each has a secret agenda and if Stephen survives their machinations it’s because he’s cut from the same duplicitous cloth.  It’s a relief to find an unabashed anti-hero at the core of “The Ides of March”; love or hate him, at least Gosling’s Stephen will inspire some spirited discussion after the film.

Historically, the Ides of March refers not just to the Roman calendar but to the day Julius Caesar was stabbed twenty-three times on the Senate floor.  We may no longer carry out our assassinations in the open-air, but as Clooney’s fine political drama suggests, we’re every bit as dead-set on power and revenge.