ScreeningNotes’s review published on Letterboxd:
"I'll do or say anything if I believe in it."
The Ides of March is a film I had to talk myself into liking. On the surface, it feels like one of those films with good writing and a better cast but which falls apart if you pick at it too long and will ultimately be lost to the fading memory of cinematic history. After drafting up this review, I'm still not convinced that it's a great movie, but I am convinced that it's at least a good one for which I have a strong personal affection. Whether I'll ever watch it again or how much of it I'll retain is unclear, but I do know that there was enough here to keep me interested this first time around and that I'd recommend it to anyone curious about it.
This is a movie about a man working for a presidential campaign whose job is to engineer public opinion. Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) works with Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to try to make Gov. Mike Morris (George Clooney) the next president by whatever means necessary. They do their best to avoid the shady political maneuvers characteristic of presidential campaigns—negative advertising, exchanging cabinet positions for support, etc.—but someone still needs to be available to orchestrate events behind the scenes. With the campaign nearing its conclusion and the polls too close to call, the competition from their opponent's team leader Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) threatens to turn back the clock on their success in the final hour.
The focus of the story isn't on the campaign itself so much as on Stephen, one of its most crucial members. He's a man who admits to having drunk the Kool-Aid of his candidate. He genuinely believes in Gov. Morris as a force of change for the better in spite of his friends' skepticism about the potential power of any president, no matter how perfect. But when cracks begin to appear in his idol's armor, his realization that the country's white knight is just another human being sends him on a downward spiral which endangers anyone willing to stand in his way.
The irony of the situation is that this True Believer works the levers behind the curtain which turn this everyday man into a wizard with his own hands. Ides foregrounds the artificially constructed nature of presidential campaigns from the first scene to the last, and Gosling's character is the primary mechanic drawing up the blueprints for victory. The story opens on Gosling reciting a speech of Clooney's—the difference being that without Clooney's expert delivery, the words fall flat like so many rubber swords, apparently powerful but actually impotent. This highlights how the public focuses more on form than content, a theme reinforced by Giamatti's cynical wisdom that being the best candidate doesn't have anything to do with winning. It doesn't matter what you'll actually do for the country, what matters is how you present yourself.
As a character study and political critique, the film is basically successful. It's message might be simple, but its validity and poignancy compensate for its lack of complexity. Gosling isn't given any backstory, but we see him begin as a naive and hopeful young man and gradually take on a more jaded, defeatist attitude as he learns that the world of politics is just as much of a popularity contest as reality television.
Both the central character arc and the general narrative construction aren't as complete or smooth as they could be though. Some of Gosling's character motivations are unclear, and a lot of his development hinges on one decision which isn't explained very well until its consequences have already begun to take shape. For a film which is barely 100 minutes long, it also stretches its tentacles into a lot of different areas narratively and thematically, some of which get lost and threaten to dismember its emotional core. For instance, Philip Seymour Hoffman gives one of the film's best speeches about the importance of loyalty, but this idea is never returned to despite it being a pretty important part of where Gosling's character goes. I like all the places the story takes us, but by not tying them all together effectively, the ending (as much as I love its immediate emotional impact) lacks the proper amount of closure.
Visually the film looks pretty great. It reaches for the neo-noir aesthetic of 70's political paranoia thrillers, with the most obvious touchstone being The Parallax View. The shadows are deep and dark, with sharp edges dividing them from the light—imagery which mimics the stark division between good and evil in the world of politics. Unfortunately, this visual style is often compromised in favor of appealing to popular sensibilities. There's a scene shot in evocative silhouettes against a backlit American flag, signifying the stain of individual politicians on the country's ideals, but after this establishing shot the scene is instead filmed in well lit shot reverse-shot so that we can see our actors' pretty faces.
Overall, The Ides of March is an entertaining, mildly interesting, and intermittently good looking film. There are few distinctly memorable moments beyond its opening and closing scenes and the two centerpieces for Giamatti and Hoffman respectively, but the film succeeds in never being boring and asking some relevant questions, and that makes it a candidate I'd put my vote behind.
"Do yourself a favor. Get out, now, while you still can. Go into entertainment, or business; go open a fucking restaurant in Costa Rica. Anything. Do something that's gonna make you happy, okay? Cause you stay in this business long enough, you're going to get jaded and cynical."