The title The Ides of March gives away the fact this isn't going to be a celebration of politics, as we all know what happened to Julius Caesar on that fateful day. And while there isn't an assassination involved in this Ides of March, there are plenty of betrayals, backstabbing and plots to kill political ambitions going on. In fact, there's so much ugliness involved in this fictional peek behind the curtain into the nastiness that occurs during political campaigning that it could turn you completely off politics - if reality hasn't done so for you already.
Co-writer/actor/director George Clooney says The Ides of March could have had the politics stripped out and been set on Wall Street to the same effect. And although I understand where he's going with that line of reasoning, I don't agree with the Oscar-winner. The Ides of March works as well as it does because of how it examines a world we all assume is corrupt and validates our opinions.
Based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, The Ides of March follows Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) and his dedicated campaign workers as they try and drum up support for his run for presidency on the Democratic ticket. Key members of his staff include his jaded but capable campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his campaign spokesman, the idealistic Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) who truly believes his friend, Governor Morris, is in fact the best solution to righting the sinking ship in Washington D.C. Stephen actually thinks his candidate is a man of principle, someone who can be trusted to do the right thing for the good of the country and who won't sell out in order to win over voters. Governor Morris is a real straight shooter who relates to the youth of America (the youth of voting age, that is) and in the first half of the film, this is a man who might well win the right to run for President on the Democratic ticket right now.
Other pivotal players in this increasingly dirty and cutthroat political race are Paul Zara's counterpart on Governor Morris' opponent's campaign, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), and a hard-nosed, ruthless New York Times reporter (Marisa Tomei) whose threats of going public with the campaign's dirty laundry send Stephen's career as spokesman spiraling off course. Stephen's life is further complicated by his attraction to a young intern named Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) who's connected to an important political figure and who has been biding her time for the right opportunity to get Stephen into bed.
Of course, the first half of the movie is only setting the audience - and Stephen - up for a fall. We see Governor Morris say and do all the right things publicly, but it's not until The Ides of March hits its half-way point that we come to understand just how slick and sleazy he is and how well he's been able to hide it behind his winning smile and unflappable public persona. And as Stephen is forced to come to terms with the reality of the situation he's in, and is forced to open his eyes to the fact his mentor isn't who he says he is, The Ides of March changes from a political drama to a cat-and-mouse thriller with an election and the occupation of the White House hanging in the balance.
The Acting and the Bottom Line:
George Clooney the director is almost too kind to his actors, preferring close-up shots when they're not necessary and allowing scenes to extend out when cutting away would better serve his audience. However, he has a fine grasp on how to slowly build up the tension and when to just let the story run wild as it heads toward its ending. And as an actor, Clooney doesn't disappoint his director, delivering another fine performance albeit one that feels a little too familiar.
In supporting roles, Giamatti and Hoffman are equally as impressive as the old-school, 'seen it all and survived to tell/cover up the story' campaign veterans who mask their ruthlessness behind good ol' boy exteriors. Likewise, Tomei plays the NYT reporter just as tough as the politicians she covers, stubborn, on task, and unyielding in her determination to score an exclusive and break a big story. And as Molly, the pretty intern who winds up in bed with Stephen and turns out to be the most pivotal supporting player of them all, Wood is absolutely perfect. The 24 year old plays a 20 year old who tries to pass herself off as sophisticated but is actually way out of her league, and Wood brings just the right mix of bravado and vulnerability to the role.
But this is really Ryan Gosling's film, and as he did with the recently released action thriller Drive and in the romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love, Gosling nails his performance. Transitioning from idealistic campaign spokesperson to someone who must adjust his take on his choice of careers and on the world of politics in general, Gosling turns in an awards-worthy performance.
Even filled as it is with terrific performances, The Ides of March has a few minor hiccups that keep it from living up to its potential. The loop we're thrown for in the third act doesn't feel genuine compared to the story leading up to it, and a few of the pieces of the pie are too neatly tidied up. Still, The Ides of March is a solid, entertaining film that could be in the running comes awards time. And for those worried about the politics involved, don't be. The film does focus on the Democratic party, but this is definitely not a tale of politicians as heroes and everyone involved comes out looking varying degrees of sleazy.
The Ides of March was directed by George Clooney and is rated R for pervasive language.
Theatrical Release: October 7, 2011