Friday, November 18, 2011

New Release Review: The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011)

George Clooney, directing just his fourth feature film (following Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck and Leatherheads), has crafted an excellent political drama/thriller that delves into the shady immorality of politics, an avenue that can often raise some scary questions and bring about revelations better left unlearned. Though it never feels like it is, The Ides of March is actually based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimo, and is centered on Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), a young, intelligent and ambitious junior advisor for the campaign of Democrat Pennsylvanian Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney).

Stephen is the new kid on the block, the fresh face, and the one with the experience that outweighs his age and the one who make his job look effortless. Though his boss, Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), keeps him under a tight leash, he can’t help but feel curious when a Republican advisor, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), claims he is working for the wrong campaign and tries to poach him. Stephen, Paul and their campaign team (which also includes Max Minghella) are trying to win Morris the Ohio Democratic primary, which would claim a big advantage in Morris’ road to the White House.

The problem is, deals have been put in place, with Morris set to lose. Stephen’s unprofessional meeting with Duffy, and his reluctance to reveal what he learns, threaten his partnership with Paul, who cherished loyalty above all else. Suddenly, from Paul's perspective, Stephen can't be trusted. To make matters more complicated Stephen has started a playful fling with head intern, Molly (Evan Rachael Wood), who has some startling secrets of her own. Through a blend of inexperience, naivety and fate Stephen cops the heat of corruption, political scandal and disloyalty on all fronts and has to learn how to play dirty with his more experienced and ruthless opposition to keep his head in the game, including men he greatly respects and believes in.

I’m really not sure how effectively The Ides of March works as an insider into American politics – possibly not all that well. The premise itself isn’t all that original. A cocky, young upstart who has become disillusioned by his rising fame and power within the Democrats, makes an error and feels the wrath of his colleagues who have the means to keep themselves in their positions and squash anyone who doesn’t play by the rules. It isn’t exactly revelatory in its message, either - politics is dirty. We all know that. But behind that warm smile and likeability, is it possible that the Governor whose corner you are placing your vote is embroiled in something unsavory? Who else is involved? How much of what has been reported is the truth? What happens behind the veneer? The Ides of March is all about this - and there are several scenes that take place in private settings, with secrets revealed and schemes whispered. It is these questions, and the fact that we are witnessing the intriguing daily stress of running a political campaign and the struggles of an idealist entrapped on all sides, that offers up such engrossing viewing.

As a drama, The Ides of March is very solid. Few dramas this year match this one for atmosphere (and this is aided by another fantastic score by Alexander Desplat and some great collaborative writing), stakes and suspense. It is well crafted and compelling, and the plot unravels with great dramatic timing and pace. Some of the reveals, following clever misleads, are both subtle in what they disclose, draw genuine emotion and actually present a surprise. The film is never boring due to the energy of the fine performances; the snappy dialogue, the intrigue (we can see the chess pieces being moved into place, but don’t know the extent of what the moves mean), and this ever-present troubling feeling. Viewers with little knowledge of how tightly competed political campaigns work, and what it takes to win, will need to initially invest some patience and attention to grasp the fast-talking and lingo. But, once we are immersed in the story, and it is a good one, there is no let-up.

There are some great performances across the board, and they are what make the film. Front and centre is Man of the Year, Mr. Gosling. It is his film. The first and last things we see in the film are his face (which is as important to his character as always), though with two very different sets of thoughts running through his head no doubt. When he has his back to the wall (and for a while I was reminded of another film from this year where Gosling’s character has been forced to take the offensive initiative) he has to put aside his principles and become the man required to hold his own in a dirty, corrupt business. He blends the best parts of his two other performances from this year; the suave cheekiness and the charming air of confidence present in his character from Crazy Stupid Love and the determined and cold-hearted ruthlessness of his unnamed driver in Drive, which he brings forth when his ideals are tested and a life he has built through fierce dedication seems set to fall apart beneath him. If the film is to garner any awards recognition, and I'm still undecided by it's worthiness, it might just be for Gosling.

He is backed up (and pitted against) a host of strong supports. The best, as usual, is Seymour Hoffman. He is a man who always seems to be convincing no matter what role. His jaded character’s evident intelligence, his uncontained paranoia, and his intense outbursts, are given hefty weight by Hoffman’s commitment and clever restraint. Paul Giamatti, too, was excellent – and it would have been great to see he and Hoffman go at it again at some point. A bit of a wasted opportunity there.

If there was a man working today who was born to play a Presidential candidate, (or a President for that matter), it is George Clooney. He brings his usual class, and charming smile, to this effective role. As for the women, I was impressed by Evan Rachel Wood, often not particularly memorable. She was quite good in Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, but a weak point in The Wrestler I thought. Here she plays a sexy intern who has cloudy motivations for seducing Gosling’s character. Marissa Tomei was underused a little as a New York Times political journalist willing to try any means necessary to get an exclusive inside scoop.

Despite all of these fine qualities, I still felt like The Ides of March was missing something – something that draws you in for repeat viewings, and makes a lasting impression and deems it worthy of that sought after and long-predicted Best Picture nomination. It’s very polished thriller, with slick timing, well-written dialogue and excellent performances, but the fact is, it really isn’t revelatory, and Morris’ ideals just seemed too much like he was trying to win a popularity contest (inexperience?) than convince people he could lead. How successful you find the film also comes down to how effectively you sympathize with Gosling’s character. It’s not as easy as you’d think, but the casting certainly aids the challenge. The Ides of March is fine filmmaking from Clooney and it gets my strong vote of recommendation.

My Rating: ★★★★ (B+)


  1. Bradley Cooper is People's Magazine Sexiest Man Alive and not Ryan Gosling?

    Are they fucking serious bro?

  2. The cast is awesome but the script tries to be a little too moral with its material, but regardless, I had a great time watching all of these politicians just stab one another in the back. Good review Andy.

  3. I've been really looking forward to this one - nice review!!
    @thevoid - I can well understand why Cooper was chosen over Gosling, but they're both lovely, haha

  4. We talked about this on Facebook, but 'Ides of March' didn't do much for me. Without the A list actor list, I could almost see this as an after school special. All the turns were really obvious. Glad you enjoyed it though.

  5. @ Steven - Sure, the guy is good looking, but he sure can't act as good as Gos. He owns it here.

    @ Dan - I had a great time, and though my knowledge of American politics is a little slim, I do agree with what you say. "Politics is dirty, but sometimes it needs to be - and if you're going to keep up, you'll have to be too."

    @ Ruth - Be sure to check it out. Thanks Ruth.

    What has Bradley Cooper been in this year? Limitless and The Hangover 2. Doesn't compare. I'm sorry. Haha.

    @ Max - I actually felt like there were some pretty clever misleads. I didn't see some the twists coming. I think the ones that were easy to pick up were meant to be, but some were a genuine surprise for me. It was a main reason why I liked it. I can cert. understand not having the same enthusiasm with the film, if the turns didn't hold up. But I thought the script was polished, it looked great and it remained compelling because of the intrigue and mounting pressure of the situation and because of the performances. Thanks for reading Max.