It's hard not to be a touch disappointed with The Ides of March.
When you gather this much Hollywood star power in one film, the only expectation that's possible is one of absolute greatness.
The Ides of March
isn't a great film, but it is a consistently good film made all the better by a stellar ensemble cast led by co-writer/director George Clooney as Governor Mike Morris, a sort of Obamaesque type soapbox politician with terrific charisma and enough campaign slogan platitudes to fill up 1,000 bumper stickers. Adapted by Clooney and Heslov from an off-Broadway play called Farragut North
by Beau Willimon, The Ides of March
is a jaded and cynical film that occasionally dances on that line towards caricature but remains compelling thanks to its cast and Clooney's ability to frame a shot to near perfection.
Wisely avoiding the frequent claims of right-wing bashing that often plague Hollywood films, Clooney has set this film squarely in the Democratic primary between two candidates, the charismatic Morris and the more politically connected Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell, mostly an afterthought here). The film focuses on the drive towards the March 15th Ohio Primary, a primary that may very well be the determining election for the Democratic nomination for President. While Clooney gives The Ides of March
its dignity and grounding, it's Ryan Gosling who gives the film its electricity. Gosling portrays Morris's 30-year-old press secretary, Stephen Myers, a gifted campaign spokesperson whose inexperience occasionally plays a key factor and drives campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) absolutely nuts while they both have to deal with a nosy New York Times journalist (Marisa Tomei) who is perfectly willing to play both sides of the fence and the opposition's dirtbag campaign manager (Paul Giamatti). The two campaigns are hot and heavy after the endorsement of local Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), a heavyweight with enough delegates to tip the scales and determine the winner. Nothing goes quite as planned, however, and when a pretty and well connected 20-year-old intern (Evan Rachel Wood) shows up with a secret all hell breaks loose.
The degree to which Clooney expresses what amounts to disgust towards the political process may very well surprise those familiar with the actor's usual liberal leanings. With The Ides of March,
Clooney plants himself and his characters clearly on the liberal side yet proceeds to convict nearly everyone involved with the political process. Most will describe The Ides of March
as a political thriller, yet it is a non-traditional thriller in the sense that the first half of the film is spent creating characters and a story in which we, the audience, become invested. It's a powerful testimony to each of the actors that we're never quite clear where any of this is going, even as secrets are revealed and decisions are made.
Ryan Gosling again proves himself to be one of the most dependable and gifted actors working in both independent and wide release cinema today. In a single year, Gosling has given us comedy (Crazy, Stupid, Love),
and now an award worthy performance in a political thriller. Gosling can do more in silence than most actors can do with the spoken word, and it's that masterful control of his physical performance that works so beautifully alongside Clooney's patient, more thoughtful direction. Gosling takes a rather straightforward character and turns him into a labyrinthian masterpiece.
Clooney is equally solid as Governor Morris, a man whose ideals are so consistent that he refuses to pay the "price" being asked for Senator Thompson's support yet, as well, a human being whose facade begins to lose its shine within the rigors of the campaign journey. Philip Seymour Hoffman may find himself with yet another Best Supporting Actor Oscar nom this year courtesy of this turn as Paul Zara, a man whose balls to the wall campaign style masks the fact that he ultimately values loyalty higher than virtually anything. While Hoffman's Zara can certainly be underhanded, it's Paul Giamatti's spin on Tom Duffy that is so creepy it's downright uncomfortable. While the never Oscar nominated Evan Rachel Wood is surrounded by 11 nominations in the film, she holds her own as the seductive yet ultimately vulnerable Molly. Marisa Tomei is terrific as the driven reporter who has perfected the art of faux friendship. Even the relatively bit players are stellar here, with Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Ehle both having moments to shine.
The most challenging aspect of watching The Ides of March
may very well be that it all feels too frighteningly real, with scene after scene having shades or small references to other recent political happenings. While Clooney may have slightly more faith in the liberal side of the political spectrum, The Ides of March
is a bit of a horror story in the way that it portrays a political system run amok where even the most idealistic candidates and campaign workers succumb to the seductive temptations of power and success.
Phedon Papamichael's lensing captures both the larger than life awesomeness of the political process while not losing the intimacy of the real people within the story. Alexandre Desplat's original score reminds us throughout that this is a thriller, a build-up to a resolution of lasting impact. The rest of the tech credits are solid throughout.
Think about it.
Clooney. Hoffman. Giamatti. Gosling. Tomei. Wood.
A stellar ensemble cast proves that terrific actors can turn a relatively straightforward story into a pretty darn extraordinary film. Let awards season begin.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic