VENICE, Italy — Idealism loses out to cynicism in George Clooney's political drama "The Ides of March," which opens the Venice Film Festival.
Clooney directs and acts in the political drama, which features Ryan Gosling as a gung-ho press secretary swept into a sex scandal in the final days of a Democratic presidential primary in Ohio. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are rival campaign managers who use loyalty as a weapon in their epic battle for victory.
Marisa Tomei plays a Times reporter angling for scoops on the campaign trail. And Evan Rachel Wood, a pretty campaign volunteer eager to play in the big leagues, is yet another figure giving female political interns a bad rap.
Clooney's idealistic presidential candidate, Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris, has a straightforward platform: He's nonreligious but defends the freedom of religion. He also opposes the death penalty and wants to phase out internal combustion engines to reduce American dependence on foreign oil.
Clooney plays the presidential candidate, but told reporters at the festival Wednesday he is not looking to be one in real life.
"As for running for president, look, there's a guy in office right now who is smarter than almost anyone you know, who's nicer and who has more compassion than almost anyone you know. And he's having an almost impossible time governing. Why would anybody volunteer for that job?" Clooney told a news conference.
"I have a really good job. I get to hang out with very seductive people. So I have no interest," Clooney said.
For Clooney, the film wasn't so much a political movie as a morality tale, exploring the question of whether the ends justify the means. The political arena "raised the stakes," a relaxed and jocular Clooney said, but the questions the film poses reside in many areas of life.
"You could literally put this in Wall Street, or you could put it pretty much anywhere. It's all the same sort of issues. It's issues of morality. It's issues of whether or not you are willing to trade your soul for an outcome," Clooney said.
In the film, many characters use seduction to get what they want: to get closer to power, to undermine the other campaign, to win political backing.
Giamatti called his character "an unabashedly seductive guy." His play to recruit Gosling's character to the rival campaign opens the film's exploration of loyalty and friendship in politics.
"My character is all about seduction ... the whole game of politics is a kind of sexy game in America, and I think (the movie) portrays it really well," Giamatti said.
And while Clooney and his fellow actors are willing to concede that Washington and Hollywood may share seduction and power as common currency, that doesn't mean the stakes are the same. Hollywood, they suggested, commands a disproportionate amount of popular attention.
"I do think there is a huge difference between Hollywood and Washington, you know, and what we are responsible for and what influence we wield. I think sometimes it gets forgotten, that the people who are governing us have a much more important position," Hoffman said.
The film's title — "The Ides of March" — highlights its undercurrent of betrayal. In Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, a soothsayer warns the leader of imminent betrayal with the line "beware the ides of March."
"We thought that some of these themes seemed to be somewhat Shakespearean," Clooney said. "We will leave it up to people to decide who is Cassius and who's Brutus and who's Julius Caesar. Everyone has different points of view."
It is hard to shake off the film's ultimate cynicism, which seems to reflect the current mood and gridlock in U.S. politics. But perhaps such a movie requires a cynical moment. Clooney said he shelved the movie in the face of brimming optimism following the 2008 election of President Barack Obama.
"It took about a year, and that was over," he said, with irony.
Still, he expressed hope that this, too, will pass.
"Cynicism seems to be winning over idealism right now. I think it will change. I hope it will change. Soon," Clooney said.
Clooney, who has a villa in northern Italy on Lake Como, is a familiar face at the Lido. He's directed or acted in six films that have been shown in Venice since 2003, including "Good Night and Good Luck," ''Burn After Reading" and "Michael Clayton."
"The Ides of March" is Clooney's first directorial effort to headline the festival. It is vying for the Golden Lion, which will be awarded Sept. 10.
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