The Ides of March *** ½
George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon based on the play by Willimon.
Starring: Ryan Gosling (Stephen Myers),
George Clooney (Governor Mike Morris), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Paul Zara), Paul Giamatti (Tom Duffy), Evan Rachel Wood (Molly Stearns), Marisa Tomei (Ida Horowicz), Jeffrey Wright (Senator Thompson), Max Minghella (Ben Harpen), Jennifer Ehle (Cindy Morris), Gregory Itzin (Jack Stearns), Michael Mantell (Senator Pullman).
In many ways, The Ides of March is a throwback to the films of the 1970s – and perhaps even further back. While watching it, I thought of Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate from 1972 and even Robert Rossen’s All the Kings Men from 1949. This works both for and against The Ides of March. For, because movies like this don’t get made much anymore, and it’s good to see an intelligent political thriller, with one of the best ensemble casts of the year at the top of their game. And against, because there really isn’t anything new here. It’s not exactly an original sentiment to say that politics and power corrupts – and if you want to win, you have to be as corrupt as the next guy, which is essentially what the movie is saying. There are no good guys – just different levels of rotten. Yet George Clooney, as director, co-writer and star as an instinctual feel for this material that for the most part overcomes those weaknesses. Yes, there are scenes and dialogue that are a little too on the nose – and some character motivations I didn’t really buy, but I didn’t much care. I liked every second of the movie.
The movie opens with Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) walking through the stage where his candidate, Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) is going to debate his opposition later that night – even going as far as to deliver part of the Governor’s speech. It’s a story familiar with anyone who watches CNN – Morris is a Democratic candidate for President, who should be able to win the General Election easily – but first he has to be nominated, and Senator Pullman, is putting up a big fight. Both sides need to win Ohio for their delegates that could put either over the top. And things are getting dicey. Myers is second in command of the campaign, behind Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) a more seasoned veteran, who knows their candidate is in tough. Ohio is an open primary – meaning anyone, not just registered Democrats can vote, and the Republicans are urging their supporters to vote Pullman, who they think they can beat come November. They may be able to win without Ohio, but that would require them to make a deal with Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), a former candidate, who drops out, but has hundreds of delegates who will do whatever he says. But Morris hates Thompson and said he would never make any backroom deals for support – and Thompson wants something big for his support.
Myers is a true believer in Morris. He truly believes that Morris is the real deal, not just another cynical politician, but someone who is running for the good of the country and someone who can change things. But things start to get complicated – first Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who is running Pullman’s campaign calls him for a meeting while Paul is away. Stephen knows he should not – it wouldn’t look good to be seen with Duffy – but he cannot resist. Then there is the pretty young intern, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), who comes onto him – but has some secrets she keeps from Stephen. By the time Stephen realizes the mistakes he has made, he is in way too deep.
The Ides of March is really Gosling’s movie, and he carries it with ease. In last month’s brilliant Drive, Gosling barely spoke, but in The Ides of March, he hardly ever shuts up. The movie is based on a play, so it is largely dialogue driven, and Gosling never misses a beat. The film is about his journey – his slow corruption, going from an idealist into a cynical hack, and Gosling does a great job with it. Clooney, in what is a supporting role, is also brilliant as Morris. He looks every inch a politician, and sounds like one too. He is no idealist, like Stephen, and knows what he needs to do to win, and he’s willing to go there. Stephen just doesn’t know how far Morris has already gone. Evan Rachel Wood has the other key role, and she’s good as the wide eyed intern, both more and less innocent than we first expect her to be. The rest of the cast comes and goes, but all of them get some fine moments – Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tirade about loyalty, Paul Giamatti revealing just how cynical he is, Marisa Tomei proving why you can never trust reporters and Jeffrey Wright, who doesn’t care who is President, as long as he gets something out of it. You hire this supporting cast, and you damn well better give them something to do – and Clooney does not disappoint.
George Clooney has become one of the most consistent actors working. His movies are not always great, but they are always at least interesting and intelligent. As a filmmaker, he has shown growth in just four movies – his best remains Good Night and Good Luck, and The Ides of March is a nice recovery from Leatherheads, which was largely a failure. He makes movies that are largely dialogue driven, but even here, adapting a play, his films do not feel like photographed plays – but actual films, with a distinctive visual look. The Ides of March is not quite the directorial triumph Good Night and Good Luck was (mind you, I’m a sucker for black and white), but Clooney once again acquits himself nicely behind the camera. The film does have the visual look and feel of a movie from the 1970s.
Overall, I quite enjoyed The Ides of March, even while admitting it has flaws. It was good to see a movie that takes modern politics seriously – and it was refreshing to see that George Clooney, who has been accused of being one of those “Hollywood Liberals” time and again, make a movie where the Democrats took center stage – and proved to be rotten as well. The Republicans aren’t even present in this movie. The Democrats did all of this to themselves. The message is clear – politics stinks, no matter what side of the aisle you are on.