By Matt Neufeld

October 6, 2011

It’s neither a revelation nor a secret that many politicians are dirty. The deep-rooted and very real existence of morally and legally corrupt, legally criminal and just plain unethical politicians is as old as well, all of recorded history. We all know that. But what continues to be a consistent source of exhaustion and disappointment, and maybe surprise, if only at the extent of blatant stupidity involved, is just how real, continuous, consistent and prevalent that political corruption, criminality and unethical behavior really is—at all levels of government, in all positions of government, and, literally, all of the time. That’s right, all of the time. Want a refresher course? In just the past week, here’s what’s occurred on the Political Corruption Front: Two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracting officials were charged in a large-scale bribery and kickback scheme; an Attleboro, Mass., City Councilman was charged with larceny; a Member of the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws; and the Valley City, N.D., Police Chief was fired amid allegations of wrongdoing.

That’s just in the last week.

Additionally, currently, at least three Washington, D.C., City Councilmen are currently under investigation for alleged wrongdoing, and the D.C. Mayor’s Office has been accused of nepotism, cronyism and unethical behavior. And within just the past year and a half, the Mayor of Baltimore resigned amid criminal and ethical allegations against her; several U.S. House Representatives and a U.S. Senator resigned amid various allegations of wrongdoing; a past Governor of Illinois was charged with wrongdoing; numerous Judges, Police Chiefs, Fire Chiefs, Sheriffs and City Councilmen were investigated for wrongdoing across the country; and, right here, right here in River City, the P.G. County Executive and his wife, a Member of the P.G. County Council, were arrested on corruption charges—with the wife famously stuffing tens of thousands of dollars into her bra as FBI Agents came pounding at the door of her home.

Sometimes real life just trumps the movies.

And we all need to be regularly reminded of this—not just in the media, in which investigative and daily watchdog reporting of political criminality is essential, of course—but we do need to be constantly reminded about the underside of politics, and the ugly truths that exist in every political system, in our popular culture. The continued story lines in myriad popular culture that remind us about rampant political corruption serve a basic function to remind us not only that corruption exists, and constantly exists, but that we always need to be doing better, that we always need to remain diligent about all of our politicians, and that we need to continue to watch every politician carefully and always dig deeper to get to the real truth.

These very basic civic, community, sociological, political, ethical and moral lessons are the central foundation of one of the smartest and most insightful films in months, co-producer, co-writer, actor and director George Clooney’s “The Ides of March,” an intelligent, perceptive, tense, gripping and gritty examination of those ugly truths and dirty undersides of politics. The realistic—as realistic as a morality play in a film context can be, of course–political drama is not just instant gratification for the thousands of die-hard political junkies toiling in the D.C. area, but for anyone, anywhere, because not only is all politics local, but all politics is individual, too. This is a film for anyone, not just political junkies. The basic moral and ethical lessons displayed at the core of “The Ides of March” can apply to anyone—because the deceitful, deceptive and tremendously corrupt and unethical actions displayed by nearly all of the main characters in “Ides” can serve as a lesson to any situation outside of politics: You never know who’s going to rise up and stab you in the back.

That’s a reference, of course, to the film’s title, which is a smart title, and an instant, smart allegory that connects directly to the film’s plot, story and characters. The phrase is derived from early references to March 15, which arrives in the middle of March, but more popularly to the date that Julius Caesar was brutally assassinated by an entire cabal of shady politicians in the Roman Senate—where he was literally stabbed to death. There’s some early political corruption for you!! And, subsequently, William Shakespeare, in “Julius Caesar,” had a soothsayer ominously warn Caesar, “beware the Ides of March.”

Some of the characters portrayed in Clooney’s film would have done well to seek out their own soothsayers to avoid those back-stabs.

“The Ides of March” is set in modern times, in a modern-day presidential primary campaign, as the idealistic, popular Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris (smartly, deceptively portrayed by Clooney) drudges through an important Ohio primary campaign swing, seeking not only votes, but the backing—and delegates—held by the prominent Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright). Morris, an increasingly popular idealist who speaks truthfully and hits all the right modern-day talking points, is assisted by his veteran, experienced, no-nonsense and very loyal campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a slightly novice, but whiz-kid, press secretary Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), a young buck still feeling his way around the political minefields. Morris is also dealing with an aggressive primary challenge from a fellow Democrat whose campaign is savagely, brutally operated by an all-out warrior of a campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). Complicating things for Meyers is Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), a beautiful, very young intern who insists on flirting with Meyers, her very-far-higher-up boss, not only on the campaign trail, but literally in the office. Oh, and Molly just happens to be the daughter of the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

You don’t need a film reviewer—or a soothsayer–to tell you, or even suggest, where all or some of this is going. But, yes, all of these varied components intricately crash together in a rapidly deteriorating mess of awful lies, deceit, deception, extortion and, yes, back-stabbing. It would be unfair and irresponsible to outline in detail what specifically happens—for one of the many positive aspects of “Ides” is how potentially clichéd plot developments unfold in surprising ways, which adds a suspense and thriller tone to the basic political drama tone. Those plot-twist surprises—and how the characters deal with them—are a big part of what is entertaining about the film. The story is basically a political train wreck. You want to look away from what these deceitful people are doing to each other, but you can’t, because it’s fascinating. Darkly and horrifying fascinating,but fascinating nonetheless.

Clooney, who despite having co-produced, co-written, directed and co-starred, does not present a vanity production. That’s a positive. And, interestingly, he does not present a blatantly partisan political soap box for liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican, right or left, political sermonizing, moralizing or preaching. The film is not really about partisan politics. It’s about the underlying corruption of politics, how people are corrupted, how politicians are corrupted, and how, yes, the system, right or left or moderate, is corrupted. That’s one way how the film is not a vanity production. The other way is that, again, quite interestingly, Clooney’s character is not really the central character and is not really the character that the film revolves around, on some plot levels. That is purely Gosling’s area in “Ides”—and the young actor comes through well, as he portrays not only a fiercely loyal, wide-eyed political servant at the outset, but also someone whose loyalty, belief system, morals and convictions are horribly tested, twisted and tortured. His character’s very real development is tragically sad, as his entire value system is put to some challenging tests. Clooney’s Morris always seems to be lurking in the background—appearing here and there, questionable in character, increasing dark and menacing—like the best movie monsters and creatures who you don’t really see in full view until it’s too late. Clooney’s also-challenged Morris is like the “Jaws” shark—you don’t see much of him early on, but the more that is exposed, bit by bit, the more terrifying he becomes.

This is smart writing. The script was co-written by Clooney with Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, and Willimon wrote the Broadway play “Farragut North” that the film is based on. That Willimon was apparently heavily included, and that many theater-like and stage-like production aspects are incorporated into the film is also a smart move—the writing and direction are straightforward, there are no fancy, tricky and show-offy camera tricks or angles, and the staging is very theater-like, but still filmic. Of course, the film is shot like a film and moves like a film, but you can clearly see the theater-like aspects of the play in the screenplay. The film was shot on location in Michigan and Ohio, and Clooney kept the look and production very grounded—the sets are plain and very normal. Cars are parked in cluttered alleys. Hotel rooms are just that—hotel rooms. Campaign offices are in old storefronts on busy streets, with exposed brick walls, just like many real campaign offices. And political machinations are carried out at paper- and coffee-filled tables, in cramped plane seats, in back-room offices, and at staff meetings where workers diligently take notes.

But what really stands out, as the engaging story stands out, is the acting. Clooney again scores by populating this film with a stellar cast—Gosling, as noted, turns in a riveting performance of a young man who is severely tested, but he’s also surrounded by some of the best actors working today, who are working at their best here—Hoffman, Giamatti, Wright, Wood and Marisa Tomei as a slightly rumpled, nagging, hard-charging big-time newspaper reporter. Hoffman gets the lucky call to portray possibly the only real likable and nearly-honest character in the film. His grizzled, veteran campaign manager could be any real campaign manager—tough, relentless, insightful and wholly knowledgable in politics and campaigns. Giamatti’s character is the dark side of Hoffman’s character, and the dark alternative to Gosling’s character—the campaign manager who will do just anything to anyone, just to win. The characters, as written, are fascinating, but the actors playing them are even more fascinating. Tomei continues her recent string of gutsy, down-to-earth characters that are grounded in reality, her natural beauty somewhat hidden behind glasses, a notebook and pen, and a dogged, arrogant, nosy and slightly snooty character. Of course, her character is nothing like most real journalists!

In the end, which hits you hard like a bunch of bad polling numbers, you have been exposed to an intricate political web of deception that has snared everyone in some way or another, and you’re left with an impressive morality play that raises age-old and familiar questions about politicians, politics, campaigns, ethics, morals and people in general. The only problem is, there are no easy answers, in the film or in real life, to the continuing problems of those ugly truths of politics.

Beware the ides of March, indeed.

The Ides of March (101 minutes, at area theaters) is Rated R for pervasive [profane] language.

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years. He was previously a daily local news reporter and features writer for The Washington Times and The Frederick News-Post, and he was the media relations publicist for The Washington Performing Arts Society. Matt is currently the News Editor for Carroll Publishing in Bethesda.