Ides of March, The (Review)

IDES OF MARCH, THE (10/07/11; Political Thriller)
Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright, Max Minghella, Evan Rachel Wood
SCR: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon; based on the play Farragut North, by Beau Willimon
DIR: George Clooney
MPAA: R for pervasive language throughout.
1 hour 41 mins.

Clooney’s fourth directorial effort is a political thriller, a talky drama about the maneuverings and minutia in the run-up to an all-important Ohio primary. It sets the tone early, establishing Gosling and Hoffman as the young and old lions running the campaign for the good-looking, perfect soundbites of Clooney. Then it pulls the rug out from beneath all of them.

Even when your potential nominee looks like George Clooney and says everything a dream candidate should be saying, nothing is a done deal. Giamatti is the opponent’s campaign manager, and he has a few tricks up his sleeve. His first move: calling Gosling and offering him a job. Also in play is the support of a senator (Wright) who’s out of the race, but has to pledge his support (and voting delegates) to someone.

And just when the ideas of honor and trust start to get introduced, Evan Rachel Wood slinks into the frame as 20-year-old Holly, a coquettish intern with designs on bedding Gosling. There is a well-known rule in politics and show business about what you are not supposed to do with the interns. Suffice it to say someone wasn’t paying attention to that rule.

Say what you will about Clooney’s politics, but it would be unfair to call this film a polemic of any kind. While his Governor Mike Morris happens to be a Democrat, the director’s film makes it very clear that to succeed in politics, you have to be ruthless because you’re playing with the grown-ups now. Sure, the honor and trust thing will score you gigs down the line, but there are more than a few occasions when the movie illustrates how morally corrupt one needs to be to simply navigate the deal-making.

Remember how hotly contentious Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton’s campaigns were, and then when she lost, she was offered the job of Secretary of State? There is a subplot here that explains exactly how something like that happens.

But more than anything else, The Ides of March is about the birth of cynicism, the exact moment when you take a lifetime of finely-honed ideals and chuck them to get to the next square. And once that happens, there is no going back. Life becomes a game of chess, with slippery morals taking a back seat to cleaning up messes.

As an actor, Clooney appears in less than a dozen scenes but his presence permeates through TV clips and that omnipresent Obama-stylized poster that’s everywhere.

Gosling follows two dazzling 2011 turns (comedy Crazy Stupid Love, and the thriller Drive) with this sly performance. As with Drive, his face barely moves, but he manages to convey a world crashing down with just his eyes. It’s amazing to watch him and Clooney attempt to out-cool each other during a tense confrontation in which the first one to blink, loses.

Marisa Tomei is great as the battle-hardened New York Times reporter so jaded, she doesn’t even bother with niceties anymore. Hoffman is just as dependable, arrogant with power and smarter than anyone else in the room.

If I’m being vague about the plot, thank me for that. There are a handful of moments that strike the way they do in life: just a few seconds and everything changes forever. Those are the jolts that resonate long after the movie is over, the ones that tend to remind us that we are all fallible, and all too human. And yes, I’m talking about the sexy intern again.

Clooney is a fine director, bringing a different visual stamp to each of his projects. For March, which was based on a play loosely inspired by Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, it’s all about greys and muted blues, foggy skies and cold nights.

He lets a scene breathe, but it never becomes too precious. When a character enters an SUV to receive (presumably) bad news, Clooney lingers on the vehicle from outside. We don’t need to hear what’s being said, because we know. It’s that kind of shorthand that lets us know that he knows the audience is smart, and can handle a sophisticated story about grown-ups without the whole thing devolving into histrionics.


Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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