The Ides of March: Ladies and Gentlemen, President George Clooney

The crinkly liberal icon stars with Ryan Gosling in a savory, skeptical drama about political dreams and how to shatter them

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Ryan Gosling, in The Ides of March.

The recent flailing among Republicans looking to unseat Barack Obama suggests nothing so much as the maneuvers of a desperate casting director. The first front-runner was the Mannequin Man, Mitt Romney, with the impersonal handsomeness of an actor who would play the President in a TV movie where that role is a bit part. Suspicious of Romney, conservatives summoned Rick Perry, who looks so much like Josh Brolin as George W. Bush in the Oliver Stone W.that he seemed to be auditioning for his own bio-pic. But when the Texas Governor broke out in a severe case of foot-in-mouth disease, G.O.P. zillionaires looked north to New Jersey’s Chris Christie, who could be Chris Farley revived and expanded, or Jack Black as a Macy’s parade float, or, in Jon Stewart’s description, a “part-time Bobby Bacala impersonator.” Now that Christie has said no for the thousandth time, some other movie star or celebrity lookalike must step forward. What a shame that Arnold Schwarzenegger was not born here, and that Mel Gibson has this tiny Jewish problem.

Democrats a have no such problem imagining a dream candidate, should Obama decide he’s has enough. Of course that’s George Clooney; half the liberals I know want him to be President of their fantasy United States. The affable dreamboat has the wit and charisma of a born politician, and is solidly left of center — or left of the right, which these days is the center — to appeal to Democrats who have slunk into despondency watching Obama first capitulate to Republicans, then be rejected by them. For now the star seems content in the job of Hollywood’s liberal ambassador to America. But just to tantalize and tweak his political base, he offers the smart political drama The Ides of March, which he directed, cowrote and costars in.

One of the wrinkles in next year’s Democratic primary season — if Obama runs uncontested — is that, for the first time in ages, no major candidate will be rolling out the fiery liberal rhetoric that is the Party’s old-time religion. In this movie’s coverage of a few days in an Ohio primary, Pennsylvania Governor and Presidential candidate Mike Morris throws exactly that red meat to the blue-staters. Raised Catholic but now proudly agnostic, Morris fervently — or since he is played by favorite-son Clooney, flintily — embraces abortion rights, the welfare state and the end of the internal combustion engine. And unlike Presidents Clinton and Obama, who shared the tragic appetite for universal acceptance, even from those who hated them on sight, Morris is comfortable running on what he believes. If you don’t want to vote for someone with my positions, don’t vote for me. “In fact, don’t vote for me at all.”

Actually, that’s not Morris speaking; it’s his second in command, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), joking as he sits in for the candidate during a sound check before a TV debate between Morris and Pittman, his chief primary rival. The two campaigns are run by little fat men: Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for Morris, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) for Pullman. Stephen is different: 30, fit and a comer. What Murray Kempton wrote of John Lindsay in the 1965 New York mayoral primary — that “He is fresh and everyone else is tired” — applies to Stephen, an idealist with a terrier’s determination. Keeping his career options open, he takes a secret meeting with Duffy and entertains the offer of a job with the Pullman camp. And fulfilling the dogma that politics is a great place to meet girls, Stephen falls into a noncommittal affair with a junior — very junior: 20 — staffer, Holly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood). He is not the only one who has shared her affections.

As director, Clooney fills the screen with the harried milling of any campaign and amps up the verisimilitude with appearances by TV talking heads Rachel Maddow, Charlie Rose and Chris Matthews. Clooney sees blustering bustle and edgy familiarity — giant closeups of private conversations — as the contrasts of political campaigns, which are, at heart, all rhetoric and no accountability. (Making good on promises: that’s the winner’s burden.) Clooney wants to get across that any campaign is a sales pitch: trying to persuade voters who don’t agree on much to agree on voting for this one guy. And the candidate is, by job description, the compromiser-in-chief. A New York Times reporter (Marisa Tomei), steeped in the cynicism of her trade, says as much about Morris when she tells Stephen, “He’s a politician. He’ll let you down, sooner or later.”

The script by Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, from Willimon’s play Farragut North, exists in the anachronistic world of traditional Democratic primaries as observed in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, Jeremy Larner’s The Candidate and the Garry Trudeau-Robert Altman Tanner ’88. The Tea Party is never mentioned; the closest The Ides of Marchgets to today’s dirty skirmishes comes when Zara observes that the reason Democrats lose to the more disciplined and ruthless Republicans is that “They’re afraid to get in the mud with the f [EM] -ing elephants.” The big suspense here is: Who gets to be Karl Rove?

For lay viewers who might be frightened away by too much inside-baseball politics, please note that the compromising positions of sexual politics receive greater emphasis than a candidate’s stand on the debt ceiling. The Ides of Marchwants to show the kinship of politics, show business and sex: three activities that demand and reward salesmanship. Clooney is a master of all three; his smooth line, looks and grin allow the public to think they have a clue to his real personality. The actor’s patented tic, in a movie or in an interview, comes in that microsecond before he answers a question, and his mouth betrays an emotion that might be ironic or exasperated, but instantly relaxes into the famously open, indulgent smile.

That engaging mannerism is on full display in The Ides of March, in Clooney’s performance and in Gosling’s as well. It’s not a natural fit, since the young actor, acclaimed in indie circles for roles in The Believer, Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl, Blue Valentine and Drive, is an intense Method man who has never relaxed for a moment on-screen. But Gosling has studied Clooney’s ease in being watched and adored, and his surface charm (which in movie stars we call real charm). Clooney has it; Gosling’s trying to learn it. All this is appropriate to the character of Stephen, who has Morris’s drive and a little of his star quality. Gradually, Gosling acquires the Clooney twinkle, the simulation of intimacy, the effect of gravitas — which is to say, the actor’s ability to deceive.

With Clooney’s connivance, and in a film stuffed with savvy work by veteran players, Gosling lures the movie’s emotional center away from Morris and into Stephen’s mind, where angels swim and demons lurk. The Ides of March says that American politics is a beachfront property with sharks surfing the waves. That makes this skeptical, savory movie a rich offering from Hollywood’s liberal Ambassador, and a splendid diversion from the drab crankiness of real politics.