When powerful men amass their armies and go to battle in a tight political race, even the most idealistic and fervent political junkies may find their faith tested, if not obliterated. It is an ugly, cynical business, full of ambitious people who will do whatever they must to survive.
This is the not-so-shocking point of "The Ides of March," the latest film George Clooney has directed, based on the 2008 play "Farragut North." It's meaty and weighty and relevant, exactly the kind of material that appeals to Clooney, and to fans of Clooney. But it doesn't tell us much that we didn't already know, or at least suspect, about the people we place our trust in to lead us in the right direction come election time. And it features a major and distracting twist that undermines all the serious-mindedness that came before it.
Clooney is such an excellent actor himself, though — here he plays a supporting role as a Pennsylvania governor seeking the Democratic presidential nomination — and he's such a smart, efficient director, he really knows how to get the best out of his cast. And it would seem difficult to go wrong with a cast like this. Philip Seymour Hoffman tears it up as the governor's gruff, no-nonsense campaign manager, a veteran who's seen it all and still continues to come back for more. Paul Giamatti is reliably smarmy as Hoffman's counterpart for the rival Democratic candidate, and watching these two acting heavyweights eyeball each other backstage at a debate provides an early, juicy thrill. (Jennifer Ehle is unfortunately wasted in just one scene as the governor's dutiful wife.)
But the real star is Ryan Gosling as Stephen Myers, a young, up-and-coming strategist and press secretary who works for Clooney's Gov. Mike Morris. As he did earlier this year in "Crazy Stupid Love," Gosling radiates charisma, schmoozing and charming reporters and staffers with equal ease. But beneath that slick exterior, his character is a true believer. And Morris, with his great looks, smooth voice and progressive platitudes, seems to him like the real deal. Finally.
"The Ides of March," which Clooney co-wrote with his frequent collaborator, Grant Heslov, and "Farragut North" playwright Beau Willimon, follows the final, frantic days before the Ohio Democratic primary. The nuts-and-bolts grunt work and the daily machinations and manipulations of a political campaign consistently ring true. Clooney is as interested in process as personalities, which was evident in the last film he directed, 2005's "Good Night, and Good Luck," and that balance gives his work an authenticity. With "The Ides of March," he is once again opening a portal to a specific world that he clearly takes seriously and cares a great deal about.
That's why it's such a letdown when the whole endeavor turns tawdry toward the end. We won't give away the details of the twist, but let's just say it involves a sexy, 20-year-old intern played by a coolly seductive Evan Rachel Wood. The actions and motivations in this subplot are entirely unbelievable, and the very idea of it feels like an easy way to inject melodrama. And that's a problem, since this character's choices are crucial to a series of events that culminate in the film's climax.
If "The Ides of March" had just been about intense, powerful people and the conflict between ideals and reality, it would have provided vital and vibrant entertainment. Still, Gosling's journey feels believable, despite the narrative potholes along the way. The lost, disillusioned look on his face in the film's final shot — especially in contrast with the confidence he exuded in a similar close-up at the start — says it all.
"The Ides of March," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R for pervasive language. Running time: 98 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.comments powered by Disqus