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Decoding <I>The Ides of March</i>: Who’s Who in George Clooney’s Political Drama

The new political drama The Ides of March, directed, co-written and starring George Clooney, is technically based on Beau Willimon's 2008 play, Farragut North, but you'd be forgiven for thinking that it's more of a ripped-from-the-headlines roman à clef. Almost everything about this moderately involving, but ultimately underwhelming film -- from the characters to the central story arc (which follows a presidential aspirant whose campaign is almost derailed by a sex scandal) -- seems to be modeled after real-life situations and individuals. That feeling is further driven home by the occasional appearance of recognizable figures like Charlie Rose and Rachel Maddow playing themselves in small cameos.

The movie's vague verisimilitude is at once both its greatest strength and biggest flaw. In its best moments, The Ides of March captures the military-like tactics involved with running a contemporary presidential campaign, as well as the toll that serving in those trenches takes on an individual's idealism and even their soul. At the same time though, we've seen that same basic idea played out before, both in fiction and real world tell-alls like the recent bestseller about the 2008 campaign, Game Change (which is being turned into its own movie for HBO), and Ides primarily repeats it without bringing anything significantly new to the table. Also, it's hard not to spend the entire movie trying to match each character with his or her real-world analogue. To give you some guidance in that department, here's how we think truth and fiction match up in Ides.

Barack Obama + Bill Clinton + John Edwards = Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney)
The most obvious similarity between this fictional presidential candidate and the country's current commander-in-chief are the Shepard Fairey-esque campaign posters emblazoned with Morris' handsome visage. But the snippets we hear from his speeches carry a strong flavor of Obama's "hopey, changey" optimism as well. Meanwhile, the Clinton parallels comes through in Morris' ill-advised relationship with one of his campaign interns, as well as his background as a governor (albeit of blue state Pennsylvania, rather than red state Arkansas) seeking the presidency. But the rise and fall of John Edwards feels like it played the biggest role in shaping this character. Like Edwards, Morris views himself as being outside the system, thus allowing him to speak as the voice of the common man. But he's also almost undone by his own hubris and, in order to save himself, has to decide whether or not to accept the kind of backroom compromise that he never imagined himself making when he entered the race. In the original play, Morris never actually appeared onstage and the movie would probably be stronger if Clooney had less screentime as well. It's not that the actor delivers a bad performance -- it's that Morris is more effective as a figurehead the other characters can project their own hopes -- and, later, disappointments -- onto rather than as an active participant in this story. Reducing his appearances would also lend the movie's best scene, a pivotal, late-night confrontation between Morris and his young press spokesperson Stephen, that much more dramatic weight.

Andrew Young = Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling)
Continuing the John Edwards parallels, Morris' ambitious, tech-savvy 30-year-old spokesperson seems at least partly modeled after Edwards' own body man, Andrew Young, who famously claimed to be the father of his boss's baby with Rielle Hunter before denying it and writing an extremely damaging expose of his experiences working for the lawyer-turned-Senator-turned-presidential-candidate. Like Young, Stephen truly believes that he's working for a man that deserves to be president and even takes it upon himself to clean up Morris' mess in the interest of saving the guy's reputation... and his own career prospects, of course. But his loyalty only extends so far; as soon as he realizes that Morris would cut him loose without a second thought, he's prepared to spill his story to the press or, even worse, the opposition. Coming on the heels of Drive, this is another strong star turn from Gosling, who nicely underplays his character's evolution from fish-out-of-water to experienced shark. Factor in his change-of-pace performance as a ladies' man in Crazy, Stupid, Love. and you can say that this was the year where Gosling established his bona fides as Hollywood's next big deal.

Monica Lewinsky + Rielle Hunter = Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood)
If recent history has shown us anything, it's that interns and politicians just don't mix. The college-age daughter of the Democratic National Committee's chairman (played, in a nice bit of stunt casting, by former right-wing 24 president, Gregory Itzin), Molly signs up to work at Morris' Cincinnati-based HQ and throws herself at the studly Stephen, who happily accepts her advances. But it soon emerges that he's not the first campaign fling she's had. Like Lewinsky and Hunter before her, when this secret comes out, Molly is instantly transformed from person to pawn, an inconvenience to be taken care of, regardless of what she actually wants. It's not Wood's strongest performance, but she's very appealing in the role, projecting a strength and savviness that makes her seem older than her years, only to let that mask slip in an instant, reminding you that she's still, in many ways, a kid.

David Axelrod + David Plouffe = Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman)
The two key members of Obama's campaign brain trust, Axelrod and Plouffe ran a tight ship and depended heavily on the loyalty of their foot soldiers. Morris' campaign manager has the same approach; Zara's key scene in the movie is a lengthy monologue in which he school Stephen in the true meaning of loyalty after the spokesman takes an ill-advised meeting with the manager from a rival campaign. Hoffman could play this kind of role in his sleep and, to be honest, he does phone it in somewhat, much as he did in his muted turn in Moneyball as well. Still, there's something about the weary way in which Hoffman carries himself onscreen that never ceases to be entertaining to watch. If only all character actors slummed as well as he does.

James Carville + Steve Schmidt = Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti)
The aforementioned rival campaign manager, Tom Duffy, is an experienced, unscrupulous political operator that talks big (like the famously outspoken Carville) and isn't afraid to employ controversial tactics (like Schmidt, who managed the McCain/Palin campaign) to get his guy ahead. This small, but fun role gives Giamatti a chance to resurrect that raging asshole side of his personality that he used to such great effect in Shoot 'Em Up and Private Parts. I could have happily watched a whole movie consisting of nothing but Giamatti yelling at Gosling, while his co-star stared at him impassively.

Colin Powell + Al Sharpton = Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright)
As we're told throughout the movie, Morris' election hopes rest in the hands of Senator Thompson, an influential black politician from North Carolina, who could rally his sizeable constituency and deliver the necessary number of electoral votes to put him over the top in the Democratic primary. Naturally, he wants something big in return for his support, specifically a cabinet post. Powell and Sharpton have played similar kingmaker roles for politicians in the past, although neither has sought a government position in return (on the record, at least). This insubstantial role is something of a waste of a skilled actor's talents, but, like the pro he is, Wright does the most he can with what little he has.

Maureen Dowd + John Heilemann = Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei)
A political reporter for an unspecified paper (though almost certainly the New York Times), Ida regularly hits up Stephen and Paul for scoops and off-the-record tips as fodder for her articles. But even though she acts like a friend, she's quick to remind Stephen that they aren't buddies, particularly if he's standing in the way of a story. Times op-ed columnist Dowd and New York's star political writer Heilemann (he co-wrote Game Change) are known for their extensive Rolodex of Washington movers-and-shakers and Tomei's lively performance has some of the famous fiery temperament Dowd displays in her column. We're a long way from wondering whether the actress won her Oscar for My Cousin Vinnie by accident. Even in small parts like this, Tomei has proven herself time and time again to be the real deal.

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