The Ides of March
2011, R, 102 min. Directed by George Clooney. Starring George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Max Minghella.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 7, 2011
The perfectly captured gray slush of Ohio in winter provides a suitable backdrop for George Clooney’s morality tale about politics in America. Clooney’s fourth directorial outing calls to mind Seventies political thrillers such as The Candidate and All the President’s Men (both of which starred Robert Redford, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is a handsome leading man and sometimes director who, like Clooney, is also well-known for his liberal politics). The Ides of March is not as perfectly realized as those Seventies films, nor does it live up to the Shakespearean overtones of its title. However, as a modern morality tale about the ongoing battle between idealism and corruption, The Ides of March beats to the pulse of our times.
Clooney plays a secondary role in the film as the Democratic candidate Gov. Mike Morris, who is engaged in a presidential primary in the swing state of Ohio. Clooney also co-wrote the screenplay with Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, upon whose play, Farragut North, the film is based. In the play, Morris isn’t even an onstage character, but in the film, liberal sympathizers will practically have to restrain themselves from standing up and cheering at some of the stands Morris takes. (Bullied about his atheist beliefs, Morris declares his only religion to be the U.S. Constitution.) Yet, according to this film, the realities of the political battle eventually force a candidate to climb a few rungs on the slippery slope of compromise and concession. It’s a slope that has a foundation in that gray Ohio slush, and one that most candidates climb with a helpful boost from their campaign strategists and support teams.
This story about the erosion of idealism and loyalty is told from the perspective of Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), Morris’ press secretary. The film’s well-thought-out opening scene tell us everything we need to know about the fusion of politics and entertainment in our popular culture. Smart and skilled, Meyers thinks of himself as beyond corruption because he so totally believes in his guy and their cause. Meyers’ mentor is Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose tired, rumpled, and flabby demeanor and constant second-guessing tells us everything we need to know about the mental state of political operatives. He is matched in kind by Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager of Morris’ rival, who is equally rumpled and flabby but just a little bit meaner. (Duffy talks of getting down “in the mud with the fucking elephants.”)
Would that there were more scenes in The Ides of March between Hoffman and Giamatti: Mano a mano, the film’s riot of language and unfiltered cynicism might become something transcendent. That’s not to take away from the performances as they are – wonderful and nuanced. Add to that Gosling again proving his vast versatility and Marisa Tomei as a hustling Jewish journalist trolling for a scoop. Where the film bogs down is in the intrigue that involves the 20-year-old intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), who is involved with more than one of the characters. Too much of the film, especially in the latter half, is devoted to the subplot put into motion by her (and her partners’) actions. Cherchez la intern should be seen as an obvious ploy in our fiction, even if the characters’ real-life counterparts haven’t yet caught on to that cliché. Despite this narrative misstep, The Ides of March still ranks as one of the season’s most intelligent and polished films.