Title: The Ides of March
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Director: George Clooney
Screenwriters: George Clooney Grant Heslov
Starring: Paul Giamatti, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman
This sounds like a hysterical newspaper ad pull quote from a questionable “entertainment journalist,” but here goes: every single goddamn moment of George Clooney’s The Ides of March crackles with drama and excitement. It is, as many have noted, a deeply cynical disquisition on the impossibility of real idealism in our political system, though I think it is thornier and less obvious than it seems at first glance. But whatever. Far more important than the film’s subtext is the fact that it is top-shelf, riveting, breathless, intelligent, brilliantly acted entertainment for adults. In this sense it is 2011’s Social Network. We so badly need more movies like this one, more often.
First, there is the supreme pleasure of watching characters with the confidence to know that they are good at what they do, portrayed by actors with the confidence to know that they are good at what they do. I’ve had no bigger giddy cinephile thrill this year than watching Philip Seymour Hoffman tear into the role of Paul Zara, an old-hand political consultant in the throes of a nail-biter primary campaign for popular Democratic governor Mike Morris (Clooney). Zara is a middle-aged, paunchy, slightly hunched-over dude who is comfortable in his body and fully in his element as he negotiates dinners, meetings, phone calls, and calculated camera appearances; he’s a pro, and I could have spent two hours just watching him work. So too with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the conniving campaign manager for Morris’ primary nemesis, and Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), the hotshot, idealistic up-and-comer who is Zara’s second-in-command, and for that matter Marisa Tomei in a small role as a seasoned New York Times reporter who knows exactly what she’s doing as she buddies up to the various players to position herself for the next big scoop. In some ways, The Ides of March is about process, a dramatized behind-the-scenes glimpse at the Beltway big-time, and this aspect of the film is so well done that it is just a joy to behold.
But the movie isn’t just about process. There’s a plot, a Mamet-esque concoction involving a flirtatious intern (Evan Rachel Wood), what may or may not be an elaborate confidence game orchestrated by Duffy, who seemingly wants to tempt Stephen to switch sides, and the latter’s inevitable fall from the grace of believing that he is doing the “right thing.” It’s not perfect — I have some quibbles with the rather melodramatic way everything ultimately plays out — but set against the beautifully rendered milieu of the Morris campaign, populated with brilliant actors doing some of their best work, and directed with an easy, propulsive confidence by Clooney (it’s his fourth and best film), the story becomes crackerjack, edge-of-your-seat stuff.
It also contains a compelling character arc, one intended to both capture our emotional investment and carry the bulk of the film’s thematic weight. Though I’ve treated The Ides of March as an ensemble piece, Gosling’s Stephen is its real protagonist, a smart, swaggering guy who begins the film a true believer in his candidate and his cause, and ends it as every bit a product of the brutal, fundamentally corrupt machine in which he operates. (He is kind of the mirror image of Gosling’s hotshot prosecutor in Gregory Hoblit’s underrated Fracture.) Gosling is typically excellent, seamlessly integrating his character’s heady moral dilemmas into his trademark impassive stare and slightly reluctant smile; he also gets the benefit of being front and center in one of the year’s best final shots.
I may have made The Ides of March sound like a trivial hurf-durf-politics-is-evil-and-corrupt jeremiad, but it’s not. First, the film isn’t angry, and Clooney isn’t interested in point-scoring; he’s here to tell a story. Second, things aren’t necessarily as straightforward as they seem. Things go south for Stephen, morally speaking, not when he is tempted by money or power or lured to the dark side. Instead, his convictions waver when he is personally insulted; when his pride takes a pummeling. The Ides of March suggests that virtue in Washington is a pipe dream not because the system is broken or rotten, but because it is — inevitably — run by smart, driven individuals with thoughts, feelings, and egos.
— Eugene Novikov