George Clooney during the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards show at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT
The Ides of March offers George Clooney an
opportunity to meld his professional interests and his
political ideals, writes John Horn, of the Los Angeles
The Dow Jones industrial average was plummeting and President
Obama was on the air, seeking to calm the nation and the
Inside the Studio City offices of his production company
Smoke House, George Clooney searched the TV screen, looking
for the charismatic senator the actor had supported in the
But Obama this particular morning looked defensive and a bit
gassed; life in the White House, it seemed, was grinding him
"I think he's getting beat around," Clooney said, the way a
Little League dad might cheer on a son struggling on the
pitching mound. "He should go after the S&P for the
For better and often for worse, actors have dabbled in
politics and causes, but few have shown the kind of sustained
and informed interest and commitment - on- and off-screen -
that Clooney has.
In his new film, The Ides of March, Clooney plays a liberal
presidential candidate. As a director, he previously
celebrated the power of a journalist crusading against
McCarthyism in Good Night, and Good Luck, and as an
executive producer he explored the corrosive influence of
lobbyists and spinmeisters in the HBO series K Street.
He also had a front-row seat for his father's 2004 US House
campaign in Kentucky, which ended in disappointment.
The 50-year-old actor has travelled internationally to
promote his Sudanese human rights effort, the Satellite
Sentinel Project. He's addressed the United Nations about
Darfur and co-founded an aid organisation, Not on Our Watch.
He's been asked numerous times about running for office
himself. But even with his intricate understanding of
political tactics and rhetoric (or perhaps precisely because
of that knowledge), Clooney said he would rather play a
candidate than be one.
"I don't wake up in the morning and say, 'I wish I had
President Obama's job'," Clooney said. "Every two years,
somebody tries to bring my name up and talk about politics in
the real world - 'You should run for governor!'," he added.
"I'm not getting in politics. I have no interest in politics
- because of the compromises you have to make. I don't have
to make those kind of compromises when I get to go to the
Sudan or Darfur. I get to come back and sit down in front of
the Security Council at the United Nations and say, 'This is
right, and this is wrong. Now how you deal with it, I don't
know, but this is right and this is wrong'."
Still, Ides of March, loosely adapted from Beau
Willimon's off-Broadway play Farragut North, offers a
particularly ripe opportunity for Clooney to meld his
professional interests and his political ideals.
On one hand, the political thriller is a vehicle for Clooney
(who directed and co-wrote the movie) and longtime writing
and producing partner Grant Heslov to fulfil their wishful
thinking about how a stand-up Democrat could walk and talk.
But it also takes a hard look at the personal price of
politics and its inevitable betrayals and compromises. The
film's ultimately pessimistic take may surprise some, given
that it comes from a hopeful liberal such as Clooney.
Clooney's Governor Mike Morris is poised to take the
Democratic nomination with a platform so uncompromisingly
left-leaning it might make Fox News commentators burst into
flames. He opposes the death penalty, foreign military
intervention and even internal combustion engines and
supports gay marriage, mandatory national volunteer service
and higher taxes for the richest Americans.
Amid the critical Ohio primary, the governor's campaign team,
led by Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and underling
Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), must fend off the cut-throat
tactics of Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who's calling the shots
for the governor's hard-charging opponent, Senator Pullman.
Drawn into a relationship with the sexually assertive and
well-connected campaign intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel
Wood) and confronted by a secret that the governor has
harboured, Stephen is forced to make a momentous decision
about his loyalties, his ambition and, most important, his
Clooney and Heslov had planned to put the film into
production around the time of Obama's election but postponed
the project, because it was "too cynical" and clashed with
the nation's ebullient mood.
By the time the healthcare debate had fractured any sense of
bipartisanship less than a year after the election, Ides of
March didn't seem so ill-timed after all.
The Ides of March narrative is laced with references
that will please political junkies, many drawn from recent
presidential contests. At one point in Ides of March,
right-wing pundits encourage Republicans to support the
governor's Democratic primary rival, Pullman, because he
would be easier to defeat in the general election. (Rush
Limbaugh advocated a similar course of action during the 2008
primary, encouraging his listeners to back Senator Hillary
Rodham Clinton in an effort he dubbed "Operation Chaos".)
Clooney and Heslov believe the first half of Ides of
March will be appreciated by Democrats - finally, a
candidate we can believe in - and the second half will be
loved by Republicans - well, he's just as much a fraud as
every other lefty.
If real-life Democrats end up taking inspiration from the
Mike Morris character and his stump speeches, Clooney will
hardly be upset. On climate change and oil, for instance, the
governor proposes that the United States do away with the
internal combustion engine.
"If we're cut off from oil, we will find a way to power our
cars. So say it and make it happen," Clooney said.
"It's not ridiculous. It is possible. And these are the kind
of leadership things I would love to see and could be argued
about. People will say, 'It's just actors.' But I truly
Asked about his character's views about taxation, Clooney
grows more animated.
"This is the one I think should be used by the Democrats," he
said, leaning forward in his chair.
"Every time you say the richest people in America don't pay
their fair share, that is just simply the truth. And yet when
you ask them to, everyone said it's 'socialism' or 'the
redistribution of wealth.' And you'll hear it over and over
again. 'Are you for the redistribution of wealth?' And every
Democrat goes, 'No, no, no, no, no' - because they know it's
code for socialism.
"To me, that's why the Democrats are so bad at this game.
They're always back on their heels. They're always playing
defence. I would start with an offence, and I would run on
this as a candidate. 'My campaign, my administration, is
vehemently against the distribution of wealth by the
Government to the richest Americans. I'm not going to play
your game of, 'Are you for the redistribution of wealth?'
"I want to go to these guys and say, 'Are you for
distributing wealth by the government to the richest
Americans?' Straight aggression - not this wimpy stuff.
Democrats have always been really bad at that kind of version
of politics. I say, 'Get up, stand up.'
"Those are the kind of arguments we have in this film,"
Clooney said. "And we balance it by saying, 'It doesn't mean
this guy isn't going to screw up'."
If Ides of March upsets some moviegoers, Heslov and
Clooney say they would be pleased.
"We didn't want to make this a civics lesson," Clooney said.
"We wanted to make a movie that scares people. Not scares
them politically but scares them this way - 'Oh, my God.
What's going to happen to him? What's going to happen to