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If you really think about it, apple pie and baseball aren’t the things that most folks would readily associate with the good old U.S. of A…at least, not for the past forty years or so. Truth be told, I’m not sure that either of those oldies-but-goodies would even make the top ten list these days. There is one thing, however, that I’m willing to wager would make just about everyone’s list, one particular aspect of this country that has come to define us for the past few decades more than any others: we are a nation living under the shadow of an absolutely insatiable political machine.

This is not, of course, to make the case for the United States being the most politically savvy country on this particular interstellar ball of rock, water and gas. Not at all. Rather, we are a country completely obsessed with the notion of politics not as a great unifier but as the ultimate divider. Americans have developed an “us against them” mentality that has turned political parties into virtual religions, each with their own zealous acolytes dedicated to spreading the “good word” and stomping out all rivals.  Politics and political campaigning have become such a part of our cultural DNA that they no longer have their own “seasons”: we seem to be inundated with political information, via the 24-hour-news-cycle, on a daily basis. Nowadays, we don’t have presidential election campaigns every four years: we have one, constant, political campaign that’s been running non-stop since the early ’80s.

As we find ourselves in the midst of one of the nastiest, most contentious, presidential campaigns that the country has ever known (by comparison, the George W. era almost seems quaint), it’s hard to turn in any particular direction without getting smacked in the face with some sort of hard-line rhetoric, political scandal or screaming pundit. As with any big societal issue, however, one expects pop culture to spring back with its own rejoinder, add its voice to the conversation. Where, then, are the big political films about this chaotic era? Where is the multiplex fare that makes voters go “hmm”?

Turns out, one of the better, more incisive and cutting films about this current mess we call American political campaigning already came out…back in 2011. With the foresight of a modern-day Nostradamus, House of Cards creator Beau Willimon (who had extensive experience working on Democratic political campaigns, including Howard Dean’s 2004 run for the White House) wrote a play, back in 2008, entitled Farragut North. Several years down the road, Farragut North would be adapted by Willimon and co-writer/director George Clooney as The Ides of March (2011). In the process, they would craft a political thriller that manages to be more prescient five years down the line than it was at the time it was actually released. How’s that for a neat card trick?

Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) is the kind of golden-boy politician who says all the right things, flashes a million-dollar-grin at the plebes and seems as far-removed from most career scumbags as humanly possible. He comes across as a pie-in-the-sky idealist (shades of ol’ Bernie) but that’s just the kind of difference that’s currently setting him up as the Democratic front-runner for the current primary season. You see, Morris’ only serious challenger, Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell), is one of those “business-as-usual” types (shades of ol’ Hillary) and it seems that the Democratic voter base is primed for a system overhaul. Public popularity aside, however, DNC management just doesn’t see the idealistic Morris as a viable alternative against whatever Republican gets the nomination: they’re rather go with the tried and tested Pullman rather than easy-target Morris (sound familiar?).

Despite his own party’s power games, however, Gov. Morris seems to be fairly well-regarded by all. Perhaps no one person idolizes him more, however, than his second-in-command staffer, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling). To Stephen, Morris isn’t just his latest employer: he’s a force for good, an agent of change that will wipe all the bullshit away and start us out with a clean slate. Paul (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) might be Morris’ campaign manager but no one is more of a zealous booster than ruthlessly loyal Stephen.

After a series of big wins (most instigated by Stephen’s sly political maneuvering and pitbull-with-lockjaw tenacity), Morris is looking increasingly like the shoe-in. When a misguided attempt to reach out to another senator (Jeffrey Wright) with a large delegate base ends up producing the exact opposite result, however, Stephen and Paul have to go into crisis-control mode. Senator Pullman’s sleazy campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), makes overtures towards Stephen once it seems that the Morris campaign boat is headed straight for an iceberg: imagine a large rock sailing towards a pristine, crystal-clear picture window and you have the basic idea.

Besieged by all sides, both “friend” and “foe,” Stephen only has one clear compass left: his unwavering belief in and support of Morris and his campaign. When Stephen finds out something scandalous about Morris, however, something that threatens to tank his worship of the man in an instant, his whole world threatens to crumble around him. Will Stephen be able to separate the man from the message or is this just cosmic proof that every politician, at heart, is really a self-serving scumbag?

Right off the bat, The Ides of March should be instantly familiar to anyone who’s happened to catch any of Willimon’s House of Cards series. In tone, style, intent and message, there’s a whole lot of crossover here: hell, they even both deal with politics as filtered through the Democratic Party, a further similarity that’s too glaring to miss. Where House of Cards often falls into the trap of upping the melodrama to almost Shakespearian levels, however, The Ides of March is consistently more grounded and level-headed.

Like House of Cards, The Ides of March is a brisk, busy piece of work, stuffed to the brim with political minutae, realistic Machiavellian scheming and plenty of sturdy, if not overly showy, performances. There’s a sense of verisimilitude here that certainly speaks to Willimon’s extensive political background: like the best police or medical procedurals, you get the idea that Willimon knows what he’s talking about and that kind of trust goes a long way towards keeping you in the film’s clutches.

As usual, Clooney is a thoroughly charming, disarming presence: appropriately serious and imminently “presidential,” yet possessed of the ability to slip effortlessly into cold, reptilian evil, it’s a role that fits his style to a tee. For his part, Gosling does what he does best: cold, unemotional detachment broken, ever so often, by jagged spikes of pure, steely focus. While Gosling’s style tends to dampen nearly all of his big emotional moments (like it usually does), his performance is consistent, strong and essential to the film’s inner dynamic.

On the support side, we get something of a smorgasbord of small, indelible performances. Marisa Tomei is pitch-perfect as the journalist who considers loyalty to be a four-letter word. Hoffman and Giamatti don’t do much that we haven’t seen before but each actor manages to imbue a role that could’ve been nothing more than plot device with an underlying sense of sadness that’s both striking and subtle. Evan Rachel Wood’s Molly might be a bit of a thankless character (as are most of the female characters that aren’t played by Tomei, to be honest) but she brings a perfect blend of naivety and ambition to the role that helps to balance out the almost feral machinations of everyone around her.

In many ways, The Ides of March strikes me as a much better version of another recent political thriller, Austin Stark’s The Runner (2015). Where The Runner tended to wallow in the worst aspects of shows like House of Cards and Boss, however, The Ides of March takes a much calmer, more nuanced approach. It’s the difference between fire and ice, between a long, overwrought speech and a quick, cutting glance.

From a film-making perspective, The Ides of March is as sturdy as its performances. The script is strong, Clooney’s direction is typically self-assured and the film has a rich, burnished quality, thanks to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s stellar camerawork. If the score can, at times, get a little overblown (this is Alexandre Desplat, after all), it just as often falls away to complete silence, an impressive detail in a cinematic world where leading musical cues are as common-place as product placement. The name of the game here is “subtlety”: Clooney and Willimon aren’t as interested in spoon-feeding you the info as they are in handing you a fork and telling you to dig in.

Thematically, there’s a lot to process here but the basic take-away is actually pretty simple: be careful who you choose to elevate to godhood. No human is infallible and people, by their very nature, will let you down. Fall in love with a politician’s policies, with their strategies and their plans for the future. Believe wholeheartedly in the message but be very, very careful about the messenger. As the old saying goes, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The unspoken notion, of course, is that any and all power will corrupt, to some extent. As poor Stephen finds out, we’re all only human, when all is said and done, and humans have been doing some pretty terrible things ever since we climbed out of the primordial ooze. Spend a day watching campaign ads and you’ll realize that we’re still up to the same tricks.

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