As a director, George Clooney has never really developed a distinctive style. His 2002 debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind took its oddball cues from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, while 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck was somber and restrained, and 2008’s Leatherheads had the screwball energy of Clooney’s frequent collaborators the Coen brothers. Clooney’s fourth film, The Ides of March, is in yet another style, delivered as a straightforward political thriller with pretensions toward the profound. Its message about the corrupting influence of power is pretty basic, and its characters remain disappointingly shallow, but Clooney keeps the plot moving with enough energy that March consistently thrills even when it can’t do much else.
As an actor, Clooney takes a back seat here to Ryan Gosling, who plays hotshot young political operative Steven Myers. Steven is the No. 2 man in the presidential campaign of Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney), a firebrand Democrat whose personality and political style are a sort of mash-up of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. March starts out in a similar vein as Mike Nichols’ Primary Colors, which followed an idealistic young campaign worker as he became disillusioned by the backroom deals and underhanded maneuvers of a Clinton-like politician. Steven, too, starts out as an optimistic true believer who puts all of his trust in Morris, and it’s obvious from scenes with seasoned veterans played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti that he’s going to lose his faith at some point.
But March goes in a much darker direction than that, taking Steven on an abrupt and under-motivated journey from wide-eyed idealist to hardened, bitter cynic and beyond, making him far more corrupt than any of the jaded characters around him. Gosling is charismatic and appealing to watch, but Steven remains a cipher, and his sudden changes in personality lack resonance. Clooney’s movie-star quality makes Morris’ popularity and personal magnetism understandable, but he too is essentially a blank. March wants to be an eye-opening tale of how politics can corrupt even the most pure, but without characters we can believe in, it’s just a well-executed series of plot twists.