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The Ides of March is a good example of why we, as a country, can’t have nice things. The film is a work of fiction, to be sure, but too many times we’ve seen this story play out on the campaign trail or heard of such activity in the cloistered rooms of Congressional offices. We often say that power corrupts. We seem to think of it as a binary state; it is light switch leading to selfish decisions and self-congratulatory narcissism. But politics is a game of back scratching and compromise. We expect our leaders to work together despite powerful ideological differences in order to move society forward, yet we demand that these same people be stalwart in their convictions, aboveboard in their dealings and honorable in their actions. Highly principled people make poor politicians. We want the illusion, however. Political campaigns spend enormous amounts of money on crafting one for us, so that we can be satisfied, if only on the surface. Those that occupy the murky depths beneath this surface are unnerving, often-careless individuals working towards a greater good in spite of potential casualties. They are idealists without solid ideals. They believe in their causes but only secondarily. First, they must win.
Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Myers, a staff member for an up-and-coming presidential candidate. He seems idealistic and young, the kind of fresh-faced rookie you might find in an Aaron Sorkin television show. He knows his game, he enjoys his job, and he believes in his candidate. At least, this is the impression he gives his media contact, Ida Horowicz (Marissa Tomei). Later on, we may question his motivations. His candidate, Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), is every liberal’s dream. He refuses to make religion part of his campaign conversations; he wants to purge the U.S. of internal combustion engines; he supports gay rights; he is pro-choice and anti-capital punishment. Even more importantly, he’s charming and engaging in a way not seen in politics for many years. He can get elected. But first, he has to get through the primary. As we are in the middle of a nasty war between Republican presidential candidates, we know just how cannibalistic this can be. While Morris is the underdog, he is poised to win Ohio, and subsequently North Carolina, which makes nomination very likely. Stephen’s job is to ensure this happens. But politicians are politicians and political operatives are political operatives. No one tells the truth, most people have agendas, and innocent people get caught in the crossfire.
Films like this rely heavily the performance of actors to drive the story. On the surface, The Ides of March might seem as entertaining as watching the evening news. Truth be told, the film starts out slowly and by the time you realize something is happening, it’s over. But Gosling and Clooney are true to the roles. Lesser actors might have resorted to heavy melodrama in key scenes but here nuance is treasured, adding plausibility and realism to an already effective and competent script. Additionally, Paul Giamatti and Phillip Seymour Hoffman play jaded campaign managers, essentially having a battle for the title of best character actor in Hollywood. The winner is the audience. This film was also directed by Clooney, who is dead set on winning an Academy Award. This film won’t get it because it doesn’t have a broad enough appeal, but Clooney knows how to choose projects as well as cast them, meaning that a future Oscar for Best Director or even Best Picture isn’t out of the question. As an actor and a director, he leans towards politics as a subject and has made some great films as a result. If he branches out, choosing a film that isn’t so cerebral, it might be a homerun. Personally, I would rather he forego the award and keep making films like this one.
I would consider this film to be classically made. Not necessarily in terms of style (although I think it might have benefited from being shot in black and white, like Good Night and Good Luck) but in terms of tone. This is a different type of thriller than most moviegoers are used to. There is an understated tension built into the dialogue that might be missed without careful attention. As I mentioned, this film is slow in its buildup. But in the absence of action, much is happening. Most of it is happening internally, within the characters. This film, like many classics, requires the audience to work harder to really understand it. If you are willing, then the reward is worth more than the ticket price.
The Ides of March
Directed by George Clooney
Starring Ryan Gosling, Marissa Tomei, George Clooney, Paul Giamatti,
Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes