Film Review: “The Ides of March”

by Jason LeRoy on October 7, 2011

Ryan Gosling in THE IDES OF MARCH

starring: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Evan Rachel Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Paul Giamatti, Max Minghella, Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Ehle

written by: George Clooney, Grant Heslov & Beau Willimon

directed by: George Clooney

MPAA: Rated R for pervasive language

In the gutsy yet restrained political drama The Ides of March, 2011 Man of the Year Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Myers, a devotedly idealistic campaign press secretary working for Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) as he campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination. It is just a few days before the ever-important Ohio primary election, and Morris’ entire team, ranging from experienced campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to eager young intern Molly Stearns (the freakishly overconfident Evan Rachel Wood), are in overdrive.

As is often the case with jobs where you see only your colleagues for extended periods of time (see also: film sets, medical dramas, prison), a flirtation inevitably arises between Stephen and Molly (in her seduction sequences, Wood displays the most brazen fuck-me eyeballing this side of Courtney Stodden), and they tumble into bed. But what should have been a harmless roll in the campaign trail hay accidentally leads to the revealing of a potentially campaign-killing scandal, with both Stephen and Molly finding themselves in hot water.

The Ides of March must be applauded, if for no other reason, because it actually names its political parties. It is one of very few all-star studio films about politics to actually take place in a political setting that is recognizably our own. Not that we should have to settle for anything less from as well-known a Hollywood Democrat as George Clooney, who also directed and co-wrote the film (which is based on the play Farragut North bu Beau Willimon). The script crackles with political savvy, taking place in what could easily have been the 2008 election year (the presidential seat is “up for grabs,” as it were, with Clooney as a charismatic Obama type — at least insofar as he is young-ish and handsome and the subject of Shepard Fairey knockoff posters; there are also several comments made about the Republican party that still rang true enough today to elicit knowing chuckles from the audience).

But this is far from the ra-ra Hollywood liberal circle-jerk the folks at Fox and Friends think it is. Rather, it is about the price of political success, and the suffocation of idealism that invariably occurs when one has remained in that arena for too long or scaled it too high; it is also about the fabled notion of Democrats finally learning to play politics as ruthlessly and unapologetically as Republicans. In that sense, it couldn’t be coming at a better time; Clooney has devised a film that speaks to the conflicted consciousness of American Democrats, many of whom have felt the sting of disappointment over the last three years, but are more concerned about the possibility of waking up in a year to discover themselves saying “president-elect Cain.”

The Ides of March is impeccably cast. As Stephen, Gosling gives his most dramatically compelling performance of the year, although also his most forgettable (after his Situation-style caricature in Crazy, Stupid, Love and the nameless instant-icon in Drive). It is nice to be reminded that he can actually speak in something other than a languid, affected drawl. Clooney is believable and natural enough as a would-be presidential candidate that he’s pretty much doomed himself to being asked about running for office for the rest of his natural life. Wood, overconfidence and eye-fucking aside, is the film’s most vital dramatic presence. Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, who plays the campaign manager of Clooney’s rival, are as perfect as you’d expect from them. And the always delightful Marisa Tomei pops up as an opportunistic political reporter, which will be pleasing to devotees of The Paper.

The film’s one major drawback is that it lacks a dramatic payoff. Much tension builds up as the story progresses, and the audience naturally begins to expect some kind of explosion or catharsis. This never happens. If anything, the film seems determined to show as little drama as possible; its most intense moments all happen off-screen. It has a somewhat bloated first act, then ends semi-abruptly at what feels like the end of the second act; this could certainly be an intentional effort by Clooney to portray just how chilly these backroom dealings can be, so many of which transpire without the general public being any the wiser. But even without any climactic pathos, The Ides of March is a smart, provocative drama that invests the familiar topic of political corruption with conviction and intellectual integrity.

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