In politics, particularly during the presidential primary season, when each step determines your momentum for the next, expectations can be everything. If you’re expected to win big, and you win modestly, then you lose. And so forth. Silly, but that’s the way it works.
By that standard, “The Ides of March” was for me a dud.
In fairness, I must cite the hyperbolic buildup. At dinner on the night that E.J. Dionne was here for the Bernardin lecture, there was a lot of buzz about the movie at my table. My good friend Moss Blachman made it sound like it was the greatest movie he’d seen in years. So I was eager to see it. Not eager enough to pay today’s exorbitant ticket prices to view it in a multiplex, but eager. I finally got it from Netflix this weekend.
And was disappointed. I had expected a cross between Robert Redford’s standard-setting “The Candidate” and some of George Clooney’s best recent work. Something with the depth of “Michael Clayton,” and the perception of “Up in the Air.” I felt like politics was due for that sort of treatment.
But I didn’t get that. Instead, I got a rather facile “ripped from today’s headlines” middling drama about… what was it about? Lost innocence? A descent into cynicism? Maybe. But it wasn’t a very deep descent. Or at least, the protagonist didn’t have far to descend from where he started.
What was missing? Well, first of all, any sense of why the campaign strategist played by Ryan Gosling thought the candidate played by Clooney was special. There are references to the fact that he does — that he has to believe in a candidate, and this is one he believes in (thereby making any disillusionment painful). But nothing happens or is said to make me believe it. The candidate seems pretty facile to me, nowhere near the kind of subtly redeemable character that I’ve seen Clooney play.
As for the protagonist — well, he seems pretty garden-variety, really. When his moment of shocked discovery comes, I simply don’t believe that he’s shocked. Nothing I’ve seen has persuaded me that he possesses enough of a moral sense to be shaken on a profound level. The character I’ve come to know by this point wouldn’t have a stunned look on his face; he would simply say, “OK, here’s a problem; let’s deal with it.”
Of course, by the end, what at the moment of revelation was indeed a garden-variety, way-of-the-world scandal has become something truly horrific, mainly because of the way our vapid antihero has mucked everything up.
Anyway, at the end of it all, there’s no one left standing that I can possibly care about — Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character was the only admirable one we met along the way (the guy just refuses to turn in a bad, or even mediocre, performance, doesn’t he?). And we have learned nothing about politics, or human nature, or anything.
The thing is, we could really use a movie today that asks, and genuinely tries to answer, difficult questions about the state of politics in this country today. We’re still waiting for that film.
All that said, it was probably a B-minus or C-plus movie, an absolute score that doesn’t sound too bad. But I had expected an A-plus. So that means it failed.