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The Ides of March (2011)

October 15, 2011

written by: George Clooney, Grant Heslov & Beau Willimon
produced by: George Clooney, Grant Heslov & Brian Oliver
directed by: George Clooney
rating: R (for pervasive language)
runtime: 101 min. 
U.S. release date: October 7, 2011
George Clooney’s latest film as co-writer/co-producer/director, is a political drama that doesn’t cover any new ground for the genre, but with a script and cast this good, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a look at the people behind the machinations of specific parties, filled with promises, endorsements and scandals, one has come to expect from a political campaign. “The Ides of March” plays like a procedural thriller yet is deeply rooted with solid dramatic sensibilities, and almost brings to mind the works of Alan J. Pakula or Sidney Lumet. It cares not about bashing any one side, choosing instead to look at the cold and dark world of politics with an almost fable quality. 

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is an idealistic junior campaign manager working with Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), who is aiming to be the Democratic Presidential candidate. Stephen respects and believes in Morris and his progressive ideologies, which are reminiscent of the hope and change associated with the Obama campaign (there’s even a Shepard Fairy-like campaign poster). Among the campaign crew, the charismatic Stephen is considered something of a hotshot, which is a nice boost to the ego. He reports to campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose cautious and cynical approach may seem old school to Stephen. 

As the Ohio Primaries approach, the other candidate, Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell) begins to gain ground, and may even get support from a difficult yet pivotal Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright). As Paul extensively works his contacts to woe Thompson and increase backing for Morris, Stephen makes an ethically debatable move. He agrees to have lunch with rival campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who lathers Stephen with praise and offers him a position with his party. His ego is stroked, blinding him from seeing the big picture of such a meeting. 
 IDES OF MARCH Ryan Gosling
Events begin to unravel for Stephen when word gets out he met with the enemy. Paul’s trust for him is broken and Morris distances himself from him. His reporter friend, Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) is hounding him for a story and then Stephen learns information from a Morris intern, Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) that complicates the affair he’s having with her, and ultimately, the very ideals that attracted him to his career. Paranoia and lies rise to the surface, as Stephen has to make some crucial decisions and determine where his own convictions stand. 

Rather than having a definitive political agenda, the film wisely focuses on age-old themes of idealism, integrity, loyalty, and ambition. Such themes are challenged with shrewdness, cynicism and the ever-alluring of power. Unsurprisingly, the Washington political arena just happens to be the perfect atmosphere to put those themes to the test. Hollywood has always known this and Clooney has not shied away from his own causes off-screen. As a director, Clooney is far from showy (not that he ever has been) or preachy (one might think this would be a perfect platform to voice his political views), but instead seems to wisely know how to tell an absorbing and gripping story, in a very economical and lean way. 
The story is adapted from a play by Beau Willimon (who also serves as co-writer here) called Faragut North, names after the political hub in D.C. That play was loosely based off of Howard Dean’s 2004 Democratic Primary campaign, but Clooney’s Morris shows no relation to any one particular real life figure. Instead, he feels like a left-leaning amalgam, saying just the right things to win us over. Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov have crafted a screenplay that examines honor and loyalty in a profession known for the opposite. Again, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before in the movies, but it has a careful and sophisticated execution about it.
Much of that has to do with the talent Clooney has with him behind the camera. His cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael (“Sideways” and the upcoming Clooney film “The Descendants”), provides a palette with cold tones and toys with lighting and camera staging in unique ways. Having worked on Clooney’s three previous films, editor Stephen Mirrione returns with his precise cuts that propel the story when needed. They are joined by composer Alexandre Desplat (“The King’s Speech”), who provides a fitting score that coincides especially well with as the plot thickens. The combination of such fine artists accentuate some fine storytelling here.

“The Ides of March” reminds us that Clooney the filmmaker knows how to work with actors too, allowing  them to inhabit their roles, however they see fit. That’s no surprise really, since actors-turned-directors often show such a knack, but looking at Clooney’s short filmography (this is his fourth film) as a director, it’s easy to see his steady trajectory. What he specifically does well here is placing himself in a supporting role, allowing Gosling to play a character who falls victim to the film’s referential title. 

Clooney playing Morris is no-brainer casting. Portraying a character who exudes campaign charisma and seems to have an intelligent and clever answer for every question fits the actor perfectly. During the first half of the film, as we watch him during interviews, see him navigate crowds, and notice how he interacts with his crew, it’s easy to see how Gosling’s Meyers feels that this is “the one”. While Gosling’s star continues to rise this year, he doesn’t quite stand out here as he did in “Crazy Stupid Love” and “Drive”
Although he’s still quite compelling to follow along, the second half of his character arc seems slightly unreal, missing the emotional beats that would lead to Stephen’s behavior. Being surrounded by great supporting work by Giamatti and Hoffman makes up for anything Gosling lacks though. The scenes where Gosling is interacting with either of these two great character actors great, of course, they have great material to work with too. Tomei, Wood, and Wright put in some solid work in button-pushing roles that add to the pressure of the plot. It’s an excellent cast all around, save for the too small cameo role Jennifer Ehle (so great in “Contagion”) has as Morris’ wife. 
In the end, “The Ides of March” comes full-circle for its characters and places them right where you’d expect, as tragic and frustrating as that is. Not to say this is a predictable movie, it’s just that we’ve seen these actions before, both in real life and on the big-screen. Considering the current political climate, it may be the perfect time for such a movie, but then again it’s a timeless tale, as old as 44 B.C. 

RATING: ***1/2
5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 6, 2012 2:06 am

    Nice to get a behind the scenes look at all the politics behind a political campaign. I enjoyed it, but thought the last act felt rushed. I get the lesson I’m supposed to take from it, but I didn’t FEEL it. Gosling’s character arc wasn’t gradual enough. He’s one kind of guy, then he’s another kind of guy. I want to witness the emotional transformation, not just the events that cause it.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      February 7, 2012 12:42 pm

      If I had to rate Gosling’s 2011 work, it would be as follows: “Drive” – excellent, “Crazy Stupid Love” – great, and “The Ides of March” – good. I think the characters that are most memorable from this film are the ones played by Clooney, Hoffman, and Giamatti (not to mention the heft the bring to their roles), and therefore, Gosling as the cocksure, good-looking young idealist is sort of one-note – which is how it was written. I agree though, that it felt rushed toward the end, not allowing a whole lot for Gosling’s character to transform and have this revelation and life predicament completely sink in a realistic manner.


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