The Ides of March

Stop the presses: politicians are scum!

In the second film this year that ends with a very long shot of Ryan Gosling’s face, we get The Ides of March, the newest installment in George Clooney’s directing career.  It’s a political drama, and Clooney doesn’t hide the fact that he’s a democrat (not that he ever has), while also suggesting that even the “correct” side isn’t perfect.

Politically, the film covers nothing new, and is about as enlightening in that area as Crash was about racism (going as far as saying “it exists” and leaving it at that).  The magic lies in the performances, namely those of Ryan Gosling, who stars as Steven Meyers; Philip Seymour Hoffman as Paul Zara; and Evan Rachel Wood as Molly Stearns.  Gosling plays the arrogant, up-and-coming brain trust of Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), managing the latter’s campaign while looking to further his own career in any way possible.  Along the way, he starts a superficial romance with Molly, an intern barely out of her teens, and is tempted by Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager for Morris’ opponent, to join the other side.

The story may not play out like you expect it to.  It seems, at first, the narrative will be broad, following Morris’ campaign trail and sticking close to Steven’s troubles along the way, and it does, to an extent, accomplish this, though politics for the sake of politics don’t remain the focus for very long.  We soon learn that although Morris may be the “good guy” in the political arena, he is, as all politicians must be, scum, and Steven is left to make a few moral decisions.  The question remains, though: for whom is he making these decisions?  Himself, or the people who were wronged?  It’s not evident that Steven truly cares about anyone else, as he isn’t given enough time with any individual character, and two-thirds of the way through the film Gosling seems to morph into his stoic, hardboiled character from Drive before our eyes.

The film keeps us engaged all the way through, albeit through abounding use of the Manfluence Principle (see the Glossary).  Women are portrayed as either sexually-obsessed and immature (as seen in Molly), or jaded and snakelike (as seen in a reporter played by Marisa Tomei).  We get one scene between Morris and his wife, which seems thrown in and accomplishes little besides letting us know the power of Steven’s influence on everyone around Morris.  When the women are out of the room, they’re spoken of with zero respect (including but not limited to gratuitous use of the word “fuck” to describe activities shared between multiple characters and a now-dead woman).

Spoilers ahead.  After Molly reveals that the Governor impregnated her, Steven helps fund an abortion and seems to be looking out for her.  However, after Duffy tricks Steven into leaving Morris’ camp, Molly kills herself out of worry that Steven will reveal her secret in order to damage Morris’ chances of winning the primary.  Steven, having indeed planned to reveal this information to the other side, instead uses it to blackmail Morris into firing Zara and making Steven Senior Campaign Manager.  In a sense, Steven “wins,” though in the final shots, we get the sense that Steven realizes he’s done exactly what Duffy warned him about: betrayed his principles for the sake of revenge and career success.  While beautifully shot in a fully-realized Shakespearean tragedy (reflecting the film’s title), I actually found myself caring more about whether Steven missed/cared about Molly after her very young death.  Sorry, but the sad look on his face upon seeing her dead body isn’t enough.

Despite the glowing performances, it’s occasionally difficult to sympathize due to the editing.  Whenever I said to myself, “Yes; I’m with the characters here,” the film cut to a wide shot of Morris standing at a podium with a thousand people surrounding him, as if to shout, “This is George Clooney’s movie, remember?  Listen to what he has to say about what just happened!”  On the other hand, Wood’s performance is superb (despite the flat writing behind her character), and the film feels wounded when she leaves it.  Philip Seymour Hoffman once again proves he’s such a good actor that he can make things like opening a water bottle seem interesting, and even though his character is a bit of a worm, I rooted for him.  Jeffrey Wright even appears (having lost weight since Source Code) as Senator Thompson, and nets an easy paycheck.

This is one of those stories wherein I become frustrated while also enjoying the in-the-moment experience of digesting it, similar to a T.C. Boyle story.  The technical pieces are there, but questions about the real story linger long after you’ve left the theater or closed the cover.  In this case, I feel like I was meant to “learn” something, and unfortunately, it’s these vain, big-headed narratives that shove a film into Best Picture contention.  Make no mistake – the film deserves whatever accolades it receives.  Just don’t show it to your Poli-Sci class to replace a lesson, nor to your Playwriting class to replace Coriolanus.

The Ides of March (2011); written and directed by George Clooney; starring Ryan Gosling, Evan Rachel Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and George Clooney.

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