What Caesar was once warned about, the characters in George Clooney’s new film do not fear. Rather, they attack it with the vicious hunger of a rabid animal.
March 15 is the day it all goes down. When Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney, perfect) and Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman compete in the Ohio Democratic primary. This primary, it’s explained, is a fast track to the Presidency. America is in no mood for another Republican President, so whoever tips the polls in The Buckeye State will get the indefinite advantage. Win Ohio and you're sleeping in The White House.
Here’s the beauty of Clooney’s new film (which, in addition to co-starring, he directed, produced, and co-wrote): it doesn’t focus on the candidate. It concentrates on the backrooms; the secret handshakes in dive bars, the slid envelopes stating astronomical figures, the whispered promises of a cabinet seat.
At the forefront are Stephen (Ryan Gosling, simply killing it this year), Morris’ junior campaign manager, and Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman, happily toning it down a bit), who runs Morris’ campaign. Early in the film, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti, brief but effective) the campaign manager from the opposing side, offers Stephen a job. Tom, who by all accounts seems genuine and fair, is in awe of Stephen’s flair. Deals have been made, Tom explains. Morris is set to lose. Jump ship and Stephen will have a job in the west wing.
For added effect, Stephen begins an honest, playful relationship with Molly (Evan Rachel Wood, who really deserves to work more), the head intern of Morris’ campaign.
While all this may sound familiar and unexciting, Clooney and co-writers Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, have a few tricks up their sleeve. Their cracker-jack script slowly evolves into a twisting, turning, muddled mess. Messy for the characters, mind you, not for us. The plot devices may seem recognizable, but that’s only after the fact. The Ides of March is perfect in the way it reels you in.
Problems. I didn’t buy Morris’ political stances. I seriously doubt that a guy who openly admits his atheism (or, sorry, his religious belief in The Constitution) during debates, and tells Charlie Rose that he would murder the person who, hypothetically, killed his wife, would get this far in a Presidential campaign. If Morris wasn’t played by America’s most charming leading man, the role would be borderline laughable.
But this problem, and the few others I have, are minor in comparison to the scope of the picture. The acting, as you might expect, is utterly top notch. As he did in Drive and Half Nelson (and Blue Valentine, and, well everything he’s in) Ryan Gosling demonstrates the importance of having an expressive face. Maybe that sounds funny, but seriously, go back and look at his movies. If the director was smart enough, they let Gosling simply look and stare, contemplate and negotiate, without saying a word. There is a very pivotal scene late in The Ides of March that has Gosling’s face in close up. As the camera slowly pushes in, Gosling looks on, saying nothing, but thinking everything. To put it simply, Gosling makes the movie. If this film is worth seeing, it’s largely because of him.
Indeed, audiences need not beware of this Ides of March. It’s a twisty throwback to its director’s favorite era of movies. But one that will ultimately, I feel, be overshadowed by stronger, more lasting films in the ensuing months. B+