The Ides of March

The Ides of March ★★★★½

Old-style Hollywood meets old-world politics in The Ides of March, George Clooney’s compulsively entertaining fourth effort behind the director’s chair. Adapted from the play “Farragut North,” Clooney opens the story up to multiple locations, and keeps the pacing brisk, cleverly balancing the demands of the story with the desires of an audience in the mood for more than talking heads. The result is a remarkably adept, textbook example of classic Hollywood storytelling and subtle formalism that recalls Sidney Lumet and Orson Welles in equal measure, capturing some of the best ensemble acting seen all year.

The film takes place during the week leading up to the Ohio Democratic Presidential Primary, and follows the campaign of Governor Mike Morris, played by a subdued, elegant Clooney, in a supporting role here. Ryan Gosling plays his campaign manager, Stephen Meyers, a role which, along with Driver in last year’s terrific Drive, makes for a career year for the actor. This is his film through and through, as early scenes establish a wide-eyed optimism and genuine belief in a system which will ultimately become the age-old test and transformation of his character. He idealizes Governor Morris and everything he stands for, and outlines this motivation in an early scene with Marissa Tomei’s New York Times journalist Ida Horowicz and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Paul Zara, Stephen’s boss. Naturally something comes along to shake things up, and a phone call from rival Democratic nominee campaign manager Paul Duffy, played by Paul Giamatti, precipitates much of the drama of The Ides Of March, which will ultimately involve Morris campaign intern Molly Stearns, played by Evan Rachel Wood.

The entire film plays out as people in rooms talking, but Clooney does not get restricted by his source material. True to form, the film’s action is all in the acting and dialogue, as the narrative throws Stephen Meyers against the other characters like a pinball, where each of the supporting actors gets to deliver a pivotal scene that crackles with intensity. Veterans of the campaign game, they are masters of their environment, trained to go in and win over a room quite easily. Their personal opinions and feelings don’t matter, if they exist at all, and without any emotional or inspirational ties their experience makes them ciphers, attack dogs that only have to rely on their steely confidence when the rare occasion comes they find themselves losing their audience. A scene between Paul Zara and Ohio senator Thompson, played by Jeffrey Wright, illustrates this as Zara lays out with precision how Thompson’s delegates will put Governor Morris over the top, but then words like “we need” begin to creep into the conversation when Zara realizes this meeting was lost before he even entered the room. In The Ides Of March, and the campaign trail, it's not enough to just be confident, and personal belief becomes something your enemies can use to pull the floor out from under you. Meyers’s babe-in-the-woods doesn’t stand a chance when he has to work against bears like this, instead of with them, where out in the private sector his passion and charm are bastions of hope and progress and worthy of inspiration and adulation, in these rooms, which decades ago would have been smoke-filled, his passion becomes gauche and irrelevant, and allows him to be continuously blindsided by politicians who win so they can play, and play with a stacked deck. Stripped of this optimism he is rendered a mere boy amongst wolves. Even intern Molly Stearns easily controls him, seducing him by playing to his ego. It’s a classic conceit of man against society, and in this case the society is the political landscape, and considering the current temper of the country, most of Clooney’s work is already done for him, as shadiness among politicians does not require much in the way of a leap of faith from the average moviegoer.

Clooney handles all of this with considerable aplomb, both behind the camera and in front of it. This is not a democrat or republican film, details of political platforms are kept to a minimum and used only to establish Governor Morris as a viable candidate, and great care is placed so that they do not color a perception of him as anything other than believable. His party affiliation correlates with the fact that most candidates who run on change and are prone to scandal happen to be democrat, and aside from a moment of partisan self-deprecation, when Duffy tells Meyers how the democrats can learn a lot from the way the republicans play the game, it is not essential to enjoyment of the film. Clooney has a mostly transparent visual style, classic in the sense of establishing shots followed by close-ups, and shot-reverse shot editing that helps you to forget you are watching a film. But he does not neglect when the story allows for more dramatic staging, such as Zara and Meyers in silhouette, arguing in front of a giant American flag, or capturing harsh shadows on the faces sharing a clandestine stairwell revelation, or a tracking shot as Meyers approaches a final showdown with his mentor. It’s these moments that highlight this adaptation, and make it something special. Clooney continues the tradition of actors who make pretty fine directors, from Warren Beatty to Clint Eastwood. They usually produce films that actors love to star in, because they thoroughly understand what it is like to be in front of the camera, any preoccupation with the visual nature of the film is solely at the behest of the story, and what will help make the acting most effective, which most of the time is just knowing how to trust the screenplay and let it tell the story.

One glaring issue I had with the film is that a huge plot twist about half way through hinges on Governor Morris’s campaign having no idea that the state of Ohio holds open primaries, where anyone can vote, not just those of party affiliation. I do not believe they would be ignorant of this fact. Call it dramatic license, or compressed time, but enough emphasis is placed on the fact that they had no idea, that it might take you out of the story for a while. I do not know how it is handled in the play, but overall it is of slight consequence. In the end the nature of this film as character study wins the day. With first rate acting, and a director who knows how to accentuate it, The Ides of March gives audiences a glimpse into the life of a campaign, a story of a boy becoming a man, and ultimately a gripping potential back story of any of the talking heads that increasingly populate our televisions as this election year draws closer and closer to crunch time.