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Movie review: The Ides of March

October 7, 2011

The much-anticipated political thriller The Ides of March, written, directed and produced by George Clooney (who also plays a major role) delivers a brisk, thoroughly entertaining ride, but in the end I felt a little as I did about the Obama administration sometime toward the end of 2009: with all that talent aboard (Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright), mightn’t it have been even better?

Clooney is Pennsylvania governor Mike Morris, running for the Democratic nomination against a candidate whose main shortcoming is looking far less presidential than Morris and whose campaign is run by Giamatti’s Tom Duffy. Morris’s campaign is run by Hoffman, as political campaign veteran Paul Zara, like Duffy one of those campaign pros who goes from election to election and lives and breathes for the strategizing and message spinning and deal brokering. He is mentor to zippy young media strategist Stephen Meyers, played by Gosling, who is bright-eyed enough to believe every word of Morris’s stump speeches, even the ones he’s heard so often he knows them verbatim.

Evan Rachel Wood is Molly Stearns, a young campaign intern with a very big contact in the Democratic Party structure. It goes without saying that our young hero will find himself entangled in her subplot, which I personally found a disappointingly unimaginative development (although it does set the stage for Meyers’ one very funny speech). Political junkies who love The War Room will enjoy most the parts where Meyers negotiates debate terms and preps the media and works the stats. Those are certainly the adrenaline scenes, while the sexual entanglements lack chemistry and are frankly a drag.

In part that’s because I don’t get Wood in this role. Yes, she’s an old soul, but that means that even at 24 she can’t pass for 20. I don’t think she could pass for 20 when she was 20. The make-up worn by Jennifer Ehle as Morris’s supportive wife (sadly, we see Ehle only in two short scenes) is more youthful than the heavy foundation and lip liner worn by Wood. But mostly, it’s hard to buy Wood as campaign intern, politico love interest or victim. Turns out she’s pretty much just a second act plot device, anyway. Once she’s out of the way (not a minute too soon), the games are back on, with last-minute intrigue, double-crossings and set-ups that are fun to watch going down. I was kept guessing pretty much to the end who was going to come out on top.

Marisa Tomei does a great job in a small but key role as a butch, hard-bitten Times reporter who knows the score and plays the game for what it is—a game. Her hair looks like it was hacked off in one go with garden shears, and she looks—for the first time I can remember—somewhere close to her age. It’s one of those performances that are labelled “vanity-free.” Max Minghella (Anthony’s son, who starred years ago in that intense, little-seen Terry Zwigoff-Dan Clowes sophomore effort Art School Confidential, which I actually really liked) is believable if bland as a gung-ho assistant campaign manager. Wright has a very small role as a key endorsement figure but says much more with his eyes than he’s given to say in dialogue. That’s fine, because the dialogue’s not exactly full of zingers and what Wright says with his contained face and contained body language about his character’s ambitions and awareness of his limitations is much more eloquent.

As a director, Clooney is pretty much a pragmatist: he’s interested in telling the story, not blazing style (although both cinematography and backdrops are excellent and atmospheric). As a writer, the same is true. He keeps the plot moving, but there are few memorable lines. Hoffman and Giamatti each get a good speech or two in, but the movie is pretty much devoted to Gosling. The kid is likable and undeniably charismatic, but the enigma he was in the film’s fine opening falls short in its muddled end. There’s a funeral scene that’s gratuitous and unsuccessful (giving us both too much and too little), and an end that feels maudlin in its devotion to cynicism. In the end we know almost nothing about the inner lives and motivation of either Meyers or his beloved candidate, and that feels like a failing.

Ides of March was based on a cynical political stage drama called Farragut North, and it’s true that we already know everything this movie has to say about political idealism, corruption, and behind-the-scenes machination. But I don’t go to the movies for the news. Although the thing I found least credible was the too-clean arc between Meyers’s starry-eyed dedication at the story’s start and his blank-eyed dejection at its end (in a rare overplayed moment by Gosling), in fact I myself have experienced this exact same arc, in every bit of its extremity. I experienced it first as a very young adult, voting in my very first presidential election—Bill Clinton, in 1991. And despite the fact that that ended in disappointment, and there was the West Wing in between, I somehow retained some naïvete, because I felt the same hopefulness again, voting for Barak Obama, in 2007. For me, The Ides of March acts as an analogue for the extreme high hopes many of us felt then, and the inevitable pain of political reality.





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