Intrigue Drowns Out Argument in Political Thriller Ides of March
A procedural on the political manipulation of medium and message, George Clooneys fourth directorial effort is bookended with scenes of media-op prepping. In the first, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), a 30-year-old campaign adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney), fills in for his boss at the sound check for a televised debate leading up to a queasily close Ohio primary. Stephen runs through lines from the candidates bluff-heavy speech, suggesting that anyone who doesnt buy Morriss political and religious credentials shouldnt vote for him, and concludes with his own glib ad lib: Whatever you do, dont vote for me. As Stephen is transformed from naive believer to cynic with all-too-intimate sausage-factory experience, the films ironic tone moves from relatively harmless spoken joke to insidious unspoken subtext, so that, as Stephen mics up to comment on another speech in the films final moments, in which the candidate drops words such as dignity and integrity, were meant to read painful moral conflict and compromise onto Goslings expressionless face.
Scripted by Clooney, his longtime partner Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon, The Ides of March is a loose adaptation of Farragut North, a 2008 play by Willimon, who spent his twenties working on campaigns for Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, and Howard Dean. In the play, the candidate played by Clooney was spoken of but never appeared onstage. In the film, hes an active, necessary player in behind-the-campaign intrigue involving Stephen, his mentor (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a competing candidates top aide (Paul Giamatti), and a tempestuous, barely legal sexpot intern (Evan Rachel Wood).
But Clooneys movie-star bona fides also provide a crucial face for Ides investigation of idolatry and of Morris as the charismatic politician who woos like a heartthrob, both literally and figuratively. Marisa Tomei, as a flirty, vicious political reporter, warns Stephen to be wary of his boss in the language and cadence of an embittered older sister talking to a schoolgirl about her first boyfriend: Hes a nice guy. Theyre all nice guys. Hell let you down sooner or later. Meanwhile, Giamattis character couches Stephens talent for spin (and, as it will later be revealed, his own) as a kind of devious seduction, praising the ability to earn peoples respect by making them mistake their fear for love.
The Ides of March
The Ides of March
Directed by George Clooney
Opens October 7
In this toxic cauldron of cross-motives, actual love cant exist, a fact of life that not even Woods immature intern, whose cheerful fuckability ignites disaster, can deny. But Ides is unmistakably a tale of romantic coming-of-age. A genuine idealist when we meet him, happily, guilelessly evangelizing Morriss Kool-Aid, Stephens arc is over when his heart has fully hardened. Here, as in last months Drive, Goslings blankness contains multitudes. As a main character dies, heroes are cut down to size, and a bittersweet face-saving revenge gambit is put into motion, the actors gorgeous mug becomes increasingly poker-ready, eventually locked in a deceptively placid, dangerously unreadable, quarter-smile come-on. No wonder hes made the face of the campaign.
Compelling enough as a methodic moral inquiry, a step-by-step account of how lines in the sand move, Ides is less successful when attempting to capture the feeling of the times. Transparently haunted by the crash of Obamamania (for better or worse, the takeaway image of this rarely visually interesting film is of a dead-eyed Gosling surrounded by Clooneys face on Fairey-esque screen prints selling the slogan Believe), Ides is too melancholic to mount an actual political argumentits more like public wound-licking. Any nod to our real of-the-moment disillusionment dissolves into soapy plot contortions, with a sex scandal begetting backstabbing and blackmail, necessitating secret rendezvous in darkened stairwells and the kitchens of closed restaurants.
For all of the timely questions rumbling through Clooneys filmIs change even possible? Does a good man stand a chance once incorporated into a hopelessly bad system?The Ides of March cushions the end of idealism within noir fantasy. A truly devastating indictment of contemporary politics would simply show what happens when the Believe candidate gets elected and then actually tries to do the job.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.