Mark Reviews Movies

The Ides of March


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: George Clooney

Cast: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright

MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language)

Running Time: 1:41

Release Date: 10/7/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 6, 2011

The Ides of March tells that ageless story of a man who gains the world, only to lose his soul in the process. The problem is that it's difficult to believe that said man had much of a soul in the first place.

It takes place in the cutthroat world of politics, where deals take place behind closed doors or in public spaces cleared out of anyone except those to whom the information pertains, every statement has been vetted to best appeal to the widest range of potential voters, and rumors against your guy are quashed by any mean necessary, while those murmurs that put the other guy in a suspicious light are slipped into casual conversation with any journalist who will listen (And they all love a bit of gossip, real or imagined). There's no hiding behind the false conventions of a party-less system; the candidates are Democrats vying for their party's nomination for the presidency. It is not about positions, though, and if the movie appears to have any sympathy for the focused upon nominee's platform, it is entirely dismissed once the plot kicks into gear.

The candidate is Mike Morris (George Clooney), an overtly liberal governor from Ohio whose idealism has enraptured the Democratic Party. It has even led to an awakening in Morris' assistant press secretary Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), a young man who has worked on as many if not more campaigns than men decades his senior. This one, he tells a curious journalist (Marisa Tomei), is the one. She figures he's only in it for a position in the White House if Morris wins or a cushy, high-salaried lobbying job on K Street if he loses, but, no, he insists: This contender is special.

The Republican in office has reached his term limit. There is no one on the opposing side even nearly as charismatic as Morris. He is, to cop an empty phrase from even more meaningless punditry, an existential threat to the other party.

If it sounds familiar, yes, the tie to our most recent presidential election is inescapable, yet screenwriters Clooney (who also directed), Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon (based on his play, which was actually inspired by the 2004 Democratic primary run of a completely different candidate) are quick to only allow for the tone (and the rush to win as many delegates as possible) of the fictional election mirror anything in the real world. Even then, once the exploration of the political games staffers play ceases to have much meaning to the progression of the story, the screenplay removes itself even further from actual reality and into the realm of viewing how relatively childish diversions can easily transform into almost-nightmarish perversions. At least it looks that way, with Phedon Papamichael's cinematography transitioning from brightly lit town halls to murky hallways (At one point, a character seems to merge with the shadows before emerging into slightly more light) and darkened offices.

The script imagines politics as the game we have grown to expect (and, of course, accept) it to be. It gives us two attack dogs in the form of Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Morris' most loyal cohort, and Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the right-hand man of Morris' rival Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell). They begrudgingly admire each other and would, more than likely, quite happily respect each other if they weren't opponents. Their philosophy boils down to doing just about anything for a victory, and if there is a line either would not cross, they don't reveal it. The illusion of ruthlessness is even more important than actually being ruthless.

Duffy approaches the up-and-coming Myers with a proposition: Leave Morris' staff and join Pullman's. Things become more complicated when Myers begins an affair with a young intern named Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), who has a secret involving Morris, and with that information, there's really no need to further explicate the details. Needless to say, Myers has a lot of collateral in his favor when Zara questions his fidelity to Morris' campaign and Duffy assures him that his offer was merely yet another move on the chessboard.

After delving into the inner sanctum of the campaign, with its contemporary and somewhat astute observations of how candidates and their staff must keep up with a 24-hour news cycle (A worker finds a video online of Morris making a statement about national defense that his current and possibly future foe would use against him, Myers insists they keep it under wraps, and a talk radio host sends Pullman's ideological counterparts to the polls to vote for him—better, against Morris—in the primary), the script's reliance on conspiratorial machinations seems downright trivial in comparison.

Much of the later activity falls short because The Ides of March never deals with characters but representations of that tragic flaw of vaulting ambition. Myers never comes across as a straight shooter in the first place (Gosling's understated performance, save for a moment of wide-eyed determination that plays on the verge of psychotic, never gives him a chance), and the movie's allegorical aspirations—that even the most quixotic of people are only fooling themselves in a corrupt system—are as trite as they are timeless.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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