In the week prior to the release of The Ides of March, David Axelrod (chief strategist for the re-election campaign of President Obama) stated in the New York Times: “Campaigns are like an MRI for the soul – whoever you are, eventually people find out.” The timing couldn’t be more perfect for a film that addresses that very idea.
While these campaign MRI’s keep coming up with blotches on said souls, it’s no wonder that the world at large seems to flock to celebrities over politicians. Ronald Reagan aside, celebrities usually don’t run for office, won’t affect our day-to-day lives, and won’t mouth empty talking points of hope for a better, shinier future. They merely entertain – and if they fail, it’s their careers rather than the country that suffers. That said, over the last seven years we have benefitted from the rare, high-minded and yes, political passion of “celebrity” George Clooney, this film’s director, writer and actor. In his association and/or creation with such films as Up in the Air, Michael Clayton, Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck., as well as The Ides of March, he invites us to take a closer look at the unrelenting ills overrunning our planet (whether they relate to the oil industry, corporate malfeasance, rampant unemployment and/or political corruption). Even so, these socially-aware Clooney films come all tied up in sleek cinematic bows, allowing us the option to think, to learn, or to simply let them wash over us. Our choice.
As for this movie’s title, rather than a nod to the Shakespearean quote forewarning the assassination of Julius Caesar (“Beware the Ides of March”), it’s more of a reference to the Roman mid-March deadline for settling debts. Debts that here can be construed in a multitude of ways: debts of honor, of payback, of final reckoning. In this story’s approaching ides, the stakes for winning Ohio’s Democratic presidential primary couldn’t be higher. As reflected in the opening, the pundits still bow to the political mythology that, “As goes Ohio, so goes the nation.”
Scrambling to make sure that their man wins this crucial primary is press secretary Stephen (Ryan Gosling), who answers to campaign manager Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who works 24/7 for the left-leaning, charismatic underdog candidate Governor Morris (George Clooney). While Paul is a realist, smart enough to run a campaign with his eyes wide open, Stephen is unabashedly committed to Morris as if he were America’s answer to every last problem.
The film is as slick and as smart as the well-oiled wheels of a well-run campaign. The ensemble is top-notch, from Clooney’s perfectly empty suit to Hoffman’s rumpled one, hiding his own ambition behind his declamatory bellows of loyalty above all. Referencing Shakespeare, the excellent Paul Giamatti gives us a character lifted straight out of Cassius’ manipulative playbook. And in a usually male-populated political drama, it’s refreshing to note that both Marisa Tomei’s savvy journalist and Evan Rachel Wood’s flirtatious intern get to dive into all three dimensions.
But this is Gosling’s show from start to finish. It’s his journey, his inevitable coming-of-political-age that invests every thoughtfully-shot frame of this film. (First-rate camera work ranges from the underlit and overheated backstage maneuvering staged in atmospheric film noir, to the drab-yellow interiors of utilitarian campaign stops, to the use of exteriors and picture windows in the scenes between Gosling’s Stephen and Tomei’s journalist … as if to hold out a still-optimistic hope that the press represents a last bastion of transparency.)
Politics as a wildly corrupt game of brinksmanship? Of course. But, ironically, these machinations seem far more palpable in a fictional setting, where we’re allowed a kinship with the characters whose real-life political counterparts we’ll never quite perceive. Such is the power of strong cinema. Something that Mr. Clooney not only knows, but knows how to convey so very well.
Rating on a scale of 5 incorrect political prognosticators: 4.5
Release date: October 7, 2011
Directed by: George Clooney
Screenplay by: George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon
Based upon the play “Farragut North” by: Beau Willimon
Cast: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood
Running Time: 126 minutes