American politics, at least to outsiders, is an extravagant and expensive business.
Over the years, Hollywood has risen to the occasion with many excellent films that have depicted the democratic process in less than flattering terms.
At the extreme, conspiratorial plots have featured in films as different as The Parallax View and The Manchurian Candidate, which has been made twice.
Memorable examples on campaigning alone include The Best Man, Bob Roberts and The Candidate.
Elections, of course, provide plenty of real-life drama, and most of it comes in primary contests to choose the two main parties’ candidates for the presidential ballot.
At the moment, the Republican primaries to choose an opponent to President Obama are generating a constant stream of news. So it is apposite that Hollywood’s latest political thriller examines just such a contest, although on the Democratic side.
The Ides of March (Roadshow) refers to the climactic period of this process, in which millions of dollars are poured into the campaigns of various candidates to find an eventual winner.
The title, of course, recalls the date on which Julius Caesar was fatally stabbed in the Senate — an event so well dramatised by Shakespeare.
In that play, a soothsayer sounds a warning to Caesar that he ignores.
The unlikely Caesar in the film is actor-director George Clooney, who is a political activist in real life but here takes a largely back seat role as a state governor seeking the presidential nod.
He also ignores a warning of bad outcomes.
Events get down and dirty from the start, as Clooney mouths rhetoric written for him by speechwriters, who in turn are guided by pollsters.
Throw in the media, and you have a cauldron of cynicism with the focus falling on five other protagonists — two rival campaign managers (Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti); an influential journalist (Marisa Tomei); an ambitious pollster working for Clooney’s campaign (Drive’s Ryan Gosling); and an attractive young intern from a powerful political family (Evan Rachel Wood).
What started as a play (by one-time campaign staffer Beau Willimon) set in backrooms soon turns into widescreen skulduggery with a suspicious death and back-stabbing.
Clooney has said he parked the film project in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected, saying it was not a time for cynicism in politics. That postponement proved wise, with cynicism again rampant as election fever in America builds.
The Ides of March will appeal to more than just political junkies and those who suspect the American system is beyond redemption.
The dialogue is taut and the story moves at a fast clip. Words are the chosen weapons rather than guns, so the cast has plenty of opportunity to show their class.
Clooney himself does an admirable job of directing, as he did in the media drama Good Night and Good Luck (2005), because he doesn’t hog the limelight and prefers others to carry the burden. Rating: M. Suitable for mature audiences; 101 minutes.