The Ides of March | Film review | Xan Brooks

George Clooney's campaign thriller starts out with crusading zeal, but feels a little commercial for an opening night slot at the Venice film festival

The 68th Venice film festival opened to a backdrop of crisis in the Eurozone, swingeing government cuts to the city's maintenance grant and the inevitable, ongoing soap-operatics of Silvio Berlusconi. Happily it also opened to The Ides of March, which at least reminds us that the world of US politics is no bed of roses either. This handsome, solid campaign thriller paints its primary colours in darkening shades of grey.

George Clooney directs and stars as Democrat governor Mike Morris, a centre-left poster boy, manoeuvred towards the nomination by a pair of driven back-room advisers. Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the rumpled, battle-hardened veteran, nominally in charge but increasingly outpaced by Stephen (Ryan Gosling), his hotshot young lieutenant. Morris is within a whisker of securing a crucial endorsement that would put him within sight of the White House. But the way ahead is rocky, dirty and fraught with danger. After bedding down with a teenage intern (Evan Rachel Wood), Stephen inadvertently intercepts a 2am phone call that promptly sends the campaign clean off the rails.

The Ides of March is adapted from a stage-play by Beau Willimon, a former staff member on Howard Dean's brief, ill-starred presidential dash in 2004. For much of its run, the tale comes steeped in the grubby details of Democrat politics, cherry-picking from a variety of sources, plundering from campaign folklore. On a live TV debate, Morris is asked whether he would still oppose the death penalty if his own wife were raped and murdered – a repeat of the question that skewered Mike Dukakis back in 1988. Elsewhere, Stephen echoes Lyndon Johnson when ordering the leak of a scurrilous rumour concerning a campaign rival. "I don't care if it's true," he quips. "I just want to hear him deny it."

But if these references prove too arcane to appeal to swing voters, fear not. A late nod to the Monica Lewinsky scandal is the film's cue to abruptly change course and undergo a Hollywood-style makeover. So The Ides of March emerges from its smoke-filled back-room, reborn as a glossy mainstream thriller, replete with suspicious death and high-stakes skulduggery, as Morris teeters on the brink and Stephen is cast out to the cold. From here on in, Clooney's film turns more sleek, more conventional – and possibly more cynical, too. It rolls towards the finish line with a well-oiled, stage-managed precision.

Perhaps it's true that the public gets the films – and the politicians – it deserves. The Ides of March is tense and involving, a decent choice for the festival's opening-night film. And if that vote seems a little grudging, that's only because I can't help feeling that there were surely wilder, more interesting contenders that fell by the wayside. What remains is your classic compromise candidate: a film that set out with a crusading zeal but had its rough edges planed down en route to the nomination.


Xan Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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