The Ides of March
Director : George Clooney
Screenplay : George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon (based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Ryan Gosling (Stephen Myers), George Clooney (Governor Mike Morris), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Paul Zara), Paul Giamatti (Tom Duffy), Evan Rachel Wood (Molly Stearns), Marisa Tomei (Ida Horowicz), Jeffrey Wright (Senator Thompson), Max Minghella (Ben Harpen), Jennifer Ehle (Cindy Morris), Gregory Itzin (Jack Stearns), Michael Mantell (Senator Pullman), Yuriy Sardarov (Mike), Bella Ivory (Jenny), Maya Sayre (Sue)
Ryan Gosling’s best quality may very well be his ability to suggest depth behind a seemingly implacable façade. The more rigid his face is, the more we search it out for signs of what is going on behind those eyes, whether he be playing a slick womanizer confronted for the first time in his life with real feelings in Crazy Stupid Love or as an unflappable professional driver caught in the crosshairs of extremely violent criminals in Drive. As Stephen Myers, a 30-year-old press secretary in George Clooney’s The Ides of March, Gosling essentially melds the other two characters he has played this year, inverting the arc from cynicism to idealism in Crazy Stupid Love while drawing on the rigorous vengeance from Drive. It’s a frightening combination, and one that leaves you feeling empty at the end, which may very well be the point: a cynical political fable for increasingly cynical times.
Stephen works for Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), a charismatic and engaging Democratic presidential candidate who is entering a particularly heated primary in Ohio. Morris’s campaign is run by Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a veteran of the political game who looks rumpled on the outside, but is nevertheless a cagey and paranoid, but cunning strategist. What Paul lacks, however, is true faith, which Stephen has in spades. He genuinely believes in Morris and that his political ideology, once elevated to presidential status, will make the nation a better place. It is not hard, then, to read into the film the rise and fall of Obamamania over the past four years (even without the graphically similar campaign posters constantly in the background), as promises of change and transparency have slowly but surely fallen beneath the trampling feet of political expediency and a continuing economic slump.
Adapted from Beau Willimon’s 2008 play Farragut North by Clooney, his longtime collaborator Grant Heslov, and Willimon The Ides of March is not a film about righteousness or good intentions defeated, but rather about how there is no true righteousness (at least in the political realm) and maybe there never was; the film’s titular allusion to the betrayal of Julius Caesar says as much. As the plot unfolds, characters who we thought to be paragons of virtue are revealed to be either deeply flawed, hypocritical, or both, which accelerates Stephen’s transformation from idealist working for a cause to cynic who manipulates the system to his own ends. It’s an ugly, disheartening transformation, and it carries with it that unique sting of political disappointment, the one that all of us have felt at one time or another. Especially at a time when politicians occupy the same realm as movie stars (Obama appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, for crying out loud), the idea that anyone competing for office at the national level would be blemish-free is a joke, and yet we still keep hoping.
That is where Clooney’s Mike Morris comes in, a character who was, not incidentally, left entirely off-stage in the play. With his gracefully aging visage and steely hair, Clooney’s charisma and forcefulness of speech make him a completely convincing political candidate, and even conservatives in the audience will likely have a hard time not being swayed by his presence even if his ideology is a leftist wet dream. Morris and his campaign are surrounded by the usual suspects, including the opposing candidate’s slick campaign manager (Paul Giamatti) who wants to hire Stephen away, a flirtatious and cunning New York Times reporter (Marisa Tomei) who is constantly fishing for fuel to heap on the fire, and a fresh-faced intern (Evan Rachel Wood) whose surface innocence is quickly shed in favor of a sexual frankness that lures Stephen in and starts him on the path toward unearthing secrets of which he had been blissfully unaware.
In his fourth stint as director, Clooney again demonstrates adept mastery of an unobtrusive classical style that gives the dialogue-heavy film a sense of momentum and action, even when everyone is sitting still (he did similar work with 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck, and here you can feel the presence of Sidney Lumet everywhere). He and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Sideways, 3:10 to Yuma)work the darkened corners of stairwells and back kitchens to provide a particularly cinematic sense of growing despair and intrigue, which in a way helps to relieve some of the thematic pressure: The Ides of March may paint a despondent portrait of the political system and its corruptions, but it is, after all, just a movie. Right?
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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