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The Ides of March (A Movie Review)

The Ides of March


Starring Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Max Minghella, Jennifer Ehle, Gregory Itzin, Michael Mantell, Yuriy Sardarov, Bella Ivory, Hayley Meyers, Maya Sayre, Charlie Rose, Robert Braun, Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow.

Screenplay by George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon.

Directed by George Clooney.

Distributed by Columbia Pictures.  101 minutes.  Rated R.

Everybody knows, intellectually at least, what a cutthroat, dirty game politics is. Still, it is always rather shocking on the rare occasions when you see exactly how cold the whole thing can be.  It’s like that old saying about slaughterhouses – if you knew what went into the making of the meat you would never be able to eat it.

The Ides of March, George Clooney’s smart new political thriller, knows all about this world (Clooney’s father Nick is a long-time journalist turned political candidate and activist and George grew up around it all) and shows the process off for all of its conflicting qualities – both positive and negative.  It shows how hardened you have to be to take a part in this world, how you can go from an ideologue to a cynic in a matter of hours.

This is a fictional look at the world of political campaigns, but it feels as trenchant as today’s newspaper (well, blog… sadly, no one reads the papers anymore). It shows how basically good people with very pure intentions can easily become warped by the system to the point where nothing – not truth, loyalty, scruples or even people’s lives – is more important than winning.

Smartly, the openly progressive Clooney made the film about a Democratic Presidential primary, to cut off the inevitable cries of partisanship. This story is not about party politics so much as how deadening the whole process can be. “See,” Clooney seems to be saying, “Democrats are no better than Republicans.” (Well, a little better, but not much…)

The Ides of March is intelligent about the political process – it is based on the play Farragut North by former political operative Beau Willimon, who co-wrote the screenplay with Clooney and his long-time collaborator Grant Heslov. And if, yes, it occasionally gets a bit melodramatic, much of what goes on here still has the stark feel of reality.

Some of this world is hard to watch, but some of it is undeniably seductive.

In The Ides of March, Clooney plays Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris, a progressive’s wet dream of a candidate. He’s smart, good-looking, smooth talking, committed to the common person and the environment, anti-war, pro-jobs and does not put his religion before his position of power.

However, Morris is not the main character of the film.  This is not a look at the candidate so much as the machinery behind the scenes. Imagine The West Wing filmed before President Bartlett made it into office – and if Leo, CJ, Josh and Toby were considerably more cutthroat – and you’ll have an idea of the thrust of this movie.

The Ides of March is actually about the political coming-of-age – and loss of innocence – of a hotshot up-and-comer in the political world. Stephen Meyers (played by Ryan Gosling) is a true anomaly in the current political world, incredibly savvy at the game and yet a true, idealistic believer.

He is working his way up the ladder in the world of campaign managers – nicely captured in exhausted and jaundiced performances by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti – and still being schooled in how low these things can go.

However, he quickly loses his innocence and moral high ground when he learns a dirty secret about his candidate. As one of the characters here puts it, “You stay in this business long enough, you get jaded and cynical.” And when Meyers goes cynical, he goes all in.

And speaking of going all in, Stephen is the third straight completely different and completely successful performance by Gosling in just a few months. If you ever doubted this guy’s serious acting chops and star quality, just check out a triple feature of Crazy. Stupid. Love., Drive and The Ides of March. The characters and the films have little in common, except for the craft that Gosling brings to the roles. This year should be the year that Gosling becomes an A-lister, and it is deserved.

Clooney, in his fourth directing job, has made his most commercial film yet (of course when two of those films are Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Leathernecks that is not a huge stretch…). However, the guy continues to show a natural gift for storytelling, and as a director he is able to bring out the best in his extremely talented cast.

There are some who will say that the eventual corruption of Stephen Meyer comes too quickly, and perhaps they are true. However, as a modern morality tale, The Ides of March makes for some arresting viewing.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2011 All rights reserved. Posted: October 5, 2011.

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