A film review by Craig J. Koban October 12, 2011
THE IDES OF MARCH
2011, R, 96mins.
2011, R, 96mins.
Ryan Gosling: Stephen Meyers / George Clooney: Gov. Morris / Philip Seymour Hoffman: Paul Zara / Paul Giamatti: Tom Duffy / Marisa Tomei: Ida Horowicz / Evan Rachel Wood: Molly Stearns /Jeffrey Wright: Sen. Thompson
Directed by George Clooney / Written by Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, based on Willimon's play "Farragut North"
the ides of March.”
- Soothsayer, Shakespeare’s JULIUS CAESAR
The title to George Clooney’s fourth film as a director is noteworthy: THE IDES OF MARCH is an allusion to the day that Julius Caesar was killed and it also just happens to be the same day as the Ohio Primaries (March 15).
Like the works of
Shakespeare, THE IDES OF MARCH is permeated by classical themes of
idealism, ambition, loyalty, betrayal, and backstabbing comeuppance.
The film, at face value, is a deeply and mercilessly contemptuous
look at contemporary insider politics set during the days that leads up to
the Ohio Democratic Presidential Primary, but Clooney’s film is arguably less
about politics and more about how young and deeply idealistic
men are willing to unethically sell themselves to a power structure well
beyond their immediate control. It
asks an ageless question: is it okay to completely abandon every high and
righteous ideal that you hold dear in the interests of getting ahead in the
political arena? If anything,
the real victims while on this journey for answers are truth and honor.
Clooney’s film – which he co-wrote with Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon,
based on the 2008 play FARRAGUT NORTH by Willimon – never seems to take
political sides, which certainly could have been a temptation here
(Clooney is a well publicized supporter of the Democrats).
It’s more about how people that lust for power and control –
regardless of party – will do anything to gain it, even if it costs them
their souls. Having some sort
of a political prejudice here would have been a misstep for Clooney and
company, but he is shrewd enough as a filmmaker now to understand and
respect audiences’ attention spans and their intelligence.
In the end, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Party…does it really
matter what side you’re on if everyone plays the same immoral and
unscrupulous mind games?
Clooney writes, directs, and stars, he unselfishly allows THE IDES OF
MARCH to belong to another character and actor, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), who is the
Junior Campaign Manager for Mike Morris (Clooney), the Governor of
Pennsylvania and a hopeful Presidential candidate that is competing
against Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell).
With the Ohio Primary on the horizon, Meyers pulls out all of the
stops to get Governor Morris the big push he needs.
Likewise, Pullman’s people, led by Senior Campaign Manager Tom
Duffy (Paul Giamatti) also work through the days and nights to get their
candidate the much-needed Ohio vote, which would essentially allow for a
fairly easy walk towards the presidency.
Meyers is young,
but he does make up for it when it comes to experience and opportunistic
idealism: he believes that only good can happen to people that make the
right decisions. His positive political ideology is thrown a curveball when
Duffy approaches him and asks him to jump ship and join him on the Pullman
campaign. Of course, Meyers
holds his own during their brief meeting, stating that he firmly believes in Governor Morris’ campaign platform.
The crafty old veteran that is Duffy looks incredulously at his
much greener opposition and essentially tells him that his naiveté clouds
reality and that his optimism won’t stand the test of time. He further tells Meyers that Morris, with time, will end up
just as corrupt as any other candidate.
Meyers, steadfast in his loyalty, still refuses to abandon the
really problematic on the campaign front.
Meyers gets into considerable trouble when Morris’ Senior Campaign
manager (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) finds out about his semi-clandestine
visit with the opposition, which infuriates him.
Then there is a pesky and persistent reporter (Marisa Tomei) that
manages to find out about the meeting between Meyers and Duffy and wants to
go public with it, which could damage the Morris campaign.
Then there is the matter of both sides getting the endorsement of
Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright) that has 300 pledged delegates and will
support either side if promised the Secretary of State position, which
Morris refuses to give over, seeing as he hates being leveraged.
Finally, Meyers gets into some real hot water as he begins a sexual fling
with a pretty young intern (Evan Rachel Wood) that has a very ugly and
very damaging secret that could spell doom for Morris’ whole campaign.
If there is one
thing that Clooney does with pinpoint accuracy it would be that he (a)
gets the very best of his finely assembled group of actors and (b) he
knows how to craft atmosphere and capture the corrupt double-dealing
milieu of his film. There is
an unmistakable authenticity to THE IDES OF MARCH that many political
thrillers lack: Whether it be
with using real locations, real life media personalities, or acid tongued
and rapid fire dialogue that has the swiftly vulgar matter-of-factness of
an Aaron Sorkin, Clooney makes the film breathe with a unfiltered
genuineness. The personas
that populate this film feel lived in, like they’ve populated the
political world for years, and it is that sense of intimate verisimilitude
that makes THE IDES OF MARCH simmer with a crackling evocation of time and
Clooney, as an
actor, knows how to be an actor’s director, and the cast here is spot-on
perfect. Hoffman has an implosive energy that could bust at any moment
as Morris’s senior manager and Giamatti brings a soulful conviction and
an underplayed ruthlessness to his political manager. Tomei, in a brief, but important role is solid as her
tough-as-nails New York reporter that has no problem playing as dirty as
her politician targets. Jeffrey
Wright is all kinds of right as his Senator that’s willing to sell his
principles to the highest bidder. Evan
Rachel Wood is delicately nuanced in her tricky role as the intern that
holds the key to Morris’ success and has to deal with her own damaging
personal dilemmas at the same time. And,
course, there’s Clooney himself as an Obama-esque candidate who sells
himself as the hopeful President-to-be that has all the answers, but
harbors a sinister edge underneath his congenial façade that will stop
at nothing to get want he wants.
as he has done in countless films, owns every frame of THE IDES OF MARCH,
right down to its chillingly enigmatic final shot.
He has a formidable challenge of commanding scenes opposite a
squad of Oscar winning and nominated actors, and he does so with an
introverted intensity and sad and detached melancholy.
He captures his role’s youthful exuberance and decent-minded
hubris early on, but then when faced with the more illicitly damning
choices that mean ending or continuing on his own career, Gosling makes
Meyers a heartbreakingly pathetic – but deceitfully clever – puppet in
a field that he once thought was honorable.
He also occupies one of the best standoff scenes in a long time
when he finally confronts Morris in a dark and dreary hotel kitchen, and
the way they both give and take, usurping the momentum and edge from one
another and then giving it up, is eerily riveting.
After DRIVE and CRAZY,
STUPID, LOVE, THE IDES OF MARCH rounds off a superlative
triumvirate of stellar performances for Gosling.
THE IDES OF MARCH, alas, is not a runaway, Oscar darling, landslide victory for Clooney. The film’s running time is perhaps too short to dig deeply into its themes (it’s barely 90-plus minutes) and many of its would-be shocking plot reveals can be seen with relative ease early on. Furthermore, the overall screenplay lacks a powerful profundity it wants to achieve. Ultimately, THE IDES OF MARCH does not offer up any startling new insights into the politic process that we didn’t already know (planning and running a campaign is soul-crushing and compromises who you are…been there, done that). Yet, the lack of a new and noteworthy message to relay does not cripple THE IDES OF MARCH too badly. As a disturbing and incendiary morality play, Clooney’s virtuoso and empowered cast and his dexterously attuned direction are enough to win over my vote for a solid recommendation.