Will audiences 'March' to Clooney's political beat?

The presidential primaries will be upon us soon, so director, co-writer and star George Clooney scores points for having "The Ides of March" in theaters now. Although this political drama is frustratingly superficial where debate-worthy issues are concerned, it's really good at capturing the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that goes on as rival candidates go through a grueling presidential primary.

For all of the debate-related scenes involving the governor of Pennsylvania, Mike Morris (Clooney), and his main opponent, Sen. Pullman (Michael Mantell), who are verbally jousting as they compete for the Democratic presidential primary in Ohio, the movie is only paying lip service to their political differences. For that matter, Pullman hardly even registers as a character; and Republicans might as well just be rumors on the horizon in a movie that keeps a tight focus on the conference room strategizing within the Morris camp.

It's true that Morris' progressive and occasionally politically risky views might raise eyebrows or even picket signs in some quarters. But there isn't much substance behind the headline-grabbing statements.

If "The Ides of March" is less polemical than its debates, speeches, rallies and other political grandstanding indicate, it's presumably because the movie has a different agenda. While it's not exactly news that poll-crunching campaign aides, backroom deals for cabinet posts and ruthless scandal-control measures lurk behind the public facade of a campaign, "The Ides of March" is a tightly scripted and extremely well-acted immersion in that sort of dirty politics.

Based on Beau Willimon's play "Farragut North," the script by Willimon, Clooney and Grant Heslov is at its best when it tracks the mundane details of the campaign to win a crucial swing state in a presidential primary.

The tension between rival candidates pales next to the backstage bickering within Morris' campaign staff. Initially, it seems as if an idealistic young campaign aide, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), gets along well enough with his boss, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman). They both believe in Morris' vision for America and have a sense of what needs to be done to get out the vote.

It doesn' take long, however, for the competitive spirit to extert itself here, as plot developments create a rift between Stephen and Paul.

It would not be fair to prospective viewers to spell out those plot developments, but it's safe to say that a clandestine meeting between Stephen and Sen. Pullman's campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), adds a jolt of political paranoia to a campaign that's already pretty charged.

Add in a pesky newspaper reporter, Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), and a campaign intern, Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), who seems to have studied at the Monica Lewinsky School of Political Interns, and it's easy to see why the lofty rhetoric of the official campaign seems bland by comparison with the profane disputes going on behind the scenes.

To George Clooney's credit, his own character does not emerge unscathed from the movie's generally scalding depiction of how political operatives go about winning a primary. Gov. Morris is photogenic, articulate and bold enough with his ideological positions to at least hold the attention of voters across the political spectrum. Morris' surface charisma may conceal some harsher truths, however, and this is where Clooney as director and co-writer is merciless in examining Morris' true nature.

Certainly as an actor, Clooney understands the value of allowing characters to spar in lengthy takes that rely on subtle line readings and gestures. The real strength of the movie resides in the numerous scenes in which fine actors are encouraged to gradually develop their characters.

Ironically, you may find yourself wondering less about which politician will win in Ohio than about which actor will win during the upcoming awards season. Let's hope they play fair in their promotional campaigns. Grade: B+

"The Ides of March" (R) is now playing at area theaters.

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