The Ides of March: Film Review

Poised between politics and thriller, this morality tale from Clooney & Co. is illuminated by a terrific ensemble cast.

Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti lead the political drama about the machinations of a presidential primary campaign.

Had writer/director George Clooney and his co-scripters Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon injected The Ides of March with the intimate political conviction that made Good Night, and Good Luck a critical standout and a frontrunner for liberal patrons, the exit polls would be more positive on this political thriller juggling idealism and corruption with fairly predictable results. Not just its softer narrative and dingy Midwestern setting but its structural lack of heroics is likely to keep the popular vote down on “Ides,” which can in any case bank on tense pacing and a superb cast, led by a ruthlessly idealistic Ryan Gosling, to win festival votes beginning with its Venice bow.

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Based on the play Farragut North by Willimon, a writer who worked on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in Iowa, the story opens with an initial rush of insiders’ momentum. Then, from the excitement of being backstage at a presidential primary, the script steers away from American politics into the universal turf of the Hollywood thriller, where non-Democratic and international audiences are more likely to follow.  The title itself is a clue to the Shakespearian aspirations of the filmmakers, who set the action and a number of dramatic, at times obviously contrived plot twists in a world of backhanded politics and manipulation where Cassius, Brutus and Julius Caesar would feel right at home. 

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Perhaps the film is sufficiently in tune with the current American political climate of disillusion to find some bipartisan consensus.  Pre-production on the $12 million movie was blocked in 2008 when Barack Obama won the presidential election because the film seemed too cynical for the optimistic mood of the day; a year later, it went back in production. Though few viewers will doubt what side of the political fence it’s on, the Democrats hardly emerge unscathed at the end of this behind-the-scenes trip through the cynicism, betrayal and double-dealing of a winner-take-all political campaign.

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As the curtain rises on the handsome, expressionless face of young campaign press secretary Stephen Meyers (Gosling), the two Democratic candidates are neck-to-neck in the crucial Ohio race. One is governor Mike Morris (Clooney), an astonishingly liberal thinker in the Obama mold, who fearlessly brushes aside his opponent’s religious challenge with a glib “my religion is the U.S. Constitution.” The suave Clooney is appealingly convincing as this purist Democrat who refuses to compromise his principles or, as Paul Giamatti’s rough-and-ready, rival campaign manager Tom Duffy puts it, “get down in the mud with the f-ing elephants.”

In a few concise, well-written scenes, Stephen’s staunch idealism and dedication to the governor are firmly established, as well as his worth as a consummate professional and team player. He is a rising star in the office run by mastermind campaign manager Paul Zara, brought to life with tingling realism by Philip Seymour Hoffman.  As weathered as Duffy but apparently less cynical, Paul actually follows a rulebook that allows no deviations. When Stephen lets the diabolical Duffy tempt him into a moral quandary about his job, all hell breaks loose.

Raising the stakes all around is another temptress, 20-year-old intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), who seduces Stephen in a smooth exchange in a darkly lit bar. As soon as the sultry blonde comes on the scene, the film shifts away from the hot, rapid-fire political exchanges that set the stage, and into a film noir mode which is not unpleasant, but certainly less than could have been hoped for by the film’s piquant and original first half. From here on in the story gets a lot more familiar.

Still the fine cast makes every line of dialogue count, like the memorable final exchange between Paul and Stephen outside a churchyard, as their lives take different paths. Jeffrey Wright’s brief appearance as an influential senator able to swing the election is an example of perfect straight-faced gravitas, while Marisa Tomei’s crafty Times reporter is delightfully smart and underhanded.  Even Wood, for all her sexual incorrectness, evokes sympathy when she gets into major trouble.

Classy and professional throughout, the technical work gracefully holds all the threads together. Director of photography Phedon Papamichael works the cold, washed-out grays of Cincinnati into a quietly intense atmosphere piece, culminating in an electrifying nocturnal show-down between Stephen and Morris set, for no particular reason, in a restaurant kitchen.  Alexandre Desplat’s evocative yet unprepossessing soundtrack follows suit.