Film Review – The Ides of March
Ryan Gosling plays a rising star in Democratic Party politics in the new thriller The Ides of March. Gosling’s character Stephen Meyers has been around the block a few times. But while working on the campaign of Presidential hopeful Governor Mike Norris (engagingly played by George Clooney), he sidles his way into a potential political firestorm. At the beginning he is a true believer; he’s “drunk the Kool-aid” and actually believes in Governor Norris. But being courted by Paul Giamatti as the opposing candidate’s campaign manager leads him into a world of conflict of interest and scandal. The core of the story centers on Meyers’s eventual disillusionment about the process to which he’s dedicated himself.
Based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, the story does pose some subtle moral dilemmas. Gosling’s character is far from a shining knight. His ambitions, as much as the failings of anyone else involved, lead to his own downfall. But often you can tell that this was once a play. It feels stagy at times. Set during the Ohio primaries, the movie rarely gets outside of a darkened office or a late night hotel room. And while the dialogue is sometimes succinct, at times scenes tend to get a bit speechy, to varying effect.
Ever since Mr. Smith went to Washington, we’ve had a parade of movies with idealistic politicos dealing with a disappointing and corrupt system. But while watching The Ides of March in particular, I felt as if I had watched this movie before. And I had. It was called Primary Colors and back in 2000 Mike Nichols made the better film. But while at that time the effect of private imbroglios on a Presidential campaign and the disillusionment of an earnest campaign worker seemed timely with the Clintons fresh in our memories, nowadays this whole premise feels a little tired. As a nation we are dealing with a few wars, record unemployment, a decade of deficit spending, and seemingly insurmountable health care problems. We’ve witnessed so many political sex scandals in just the past five years that Monica Lewinsky seems kind of quaint. While the shifts of morality shown by the characters in this film still make a relevant statement, it just seems like we have larger concerns than what is being dealt with in this story.
By no means will I disparage the acting, though. Gosling once again proves he is more than a pretty face and abs. He is turning into one of our finest leading men and acquits himself nicely here, often by having to simply react to what is happening. Giamatti is believable as a cynical campaigner. Philip Seymour Hoffman is truly stellar as Gosling’s boss. Also jaded, but more than a little paranoid, he delivers a devastating speech to Gosling at one point that is a true highlight. Marisa Tomei as a semi-friendly reporter is winning, and Evan Rachel Wood as an intern who becomes the center of Gosling’s attention is very capable.
This seems like a good time to bring up George Clooney. As an actor we’ve watched him evolve before our eyes. When he became famous on TV from ER, he was a true standout. But when he first made the leap to the big screen, it took him some time to eschew some mannerisms that he had relied on for a little too long. Whether he chose a quality vehicle like The Peackeeper, or something more questionable like Batman and Robin, for a little while he kept doing “Doug Ross as Batman.” I always like to think of them as Clooneyisms. His line readings would alternate between boyishly looking down at the ground while kind of mumbling his line out to looking directly in the other actor’s eye while sternly declaring his line. Those seemed to be his only two forms of expression. But we all loved him, so he was able to skate by on it for a while.
Out of Sight was when Clooney came into his own as a leading man in film. He felt much more comfortable in his skin, relying less on tricks and charm. Don’t get me wrong, George Clooney is one of the most charming guys on the planet. But now instead of “playing” charm, he simply is charm. And for years now he has made a series of strong, interesting choices. Whether it’s O Brother Where Art Thou or one of the Ocean’s movies or Syriana or Up In The Air, Clooney is at the top of his game. I liken him to our modern day Cary Grant. Both age well, both are true leading men, and both can wear the hell out of a suit. And in The Ides of March Clooney is engaging as well. We firmly believe him as the firey, commanding candidate that he is portraying. A climactic scene that he and Gosling share late in the film is electric in large part because of his intensity.
Clooney has been a respectable director as well. His debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, was an unusual choice for a subject and a great vehicle for Sam Rockwell. Good Night and Good Luck was absolutely terrific. Clever usage of period footage, crisp black and white cinematography, a smart script, and a fantastic Oscar-nominated performance by David Strathairn really showed that Clooney is much more than just a leading man. Even Leatherheads, though kind of limp and lackluster, was a noble attempt at making a ’30s-style screwball comedy. With this new movie, though it is not his best film, he further establishes that he is concerned with taking on interesting challenges.
Without a doubt, the acting carries this film. I wished I had liked it more than I did. While the political machinations shown are realistic, the whole story seems a little tired. Gosling and Clooney are well worth watching, and maybe the Academy will remember a couple of the performers come Oscar time. You can tell that Clooney wanted to make a political thriller that’s a throwback to the 1970s (think The Candidate or All The President’s Men). But those spiritual antecedents are mostly better than this film.
Final Grade: B-