Friday, October 7, 2011

The Ides Of March

When Action Is Politics And Politics Is Action, Localized

Evan Rachel Wood as Molly and Ryan Gosling as Stephen in George Clooney's "The Ides Of March". 
Saeed Adyani/Sony

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, October 7, 2011


All politics is local, the saying goes, and George Clooney's third* directing effort, "The Ides Of March", in U.S. theaters today, demonstrates this well.  Minutely focused on behind-the-scenes intricacies and machineries of politics, Mr. Clooney's film gets especially strong performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, two standouts as dueling campaign managers in a Democratic primary (in Ohio) that will determine which of their candidates will represent the Democratic ticket for president.  Mr. Clooney's drama has its moments of spark and energy, but most of these occur in the second half of a film that has many familiar themes.

Mr. Clooney stars as one of the candidates, Governor Mike Morris, in a small role.  Morris is stubborn, cynical and unyielding.  He won't do something unless he really has to.  Paul (Mr. Hoffman), his loyal right hand man, of Karl Rove-like proportions, will do anything to get Morris to the seat of power.  Stephen (Ryan Gosling), Morris's press secretary, will do anything to spin and weave trouble away from the governor.  These contrasts of a seasoned, paranoid political bulldog and an up-and-coming, yet younger maven form the heart of a film based on Beau Willimon's play "Farragut North", from which "Ides Of March" takes a detour or two.  Mr. Giamatti, as Tom, an Ed Rollins-like pit bull of the political arena and manager of Morris' Democratic opponent Senator Pullman, is the awkward but brutally truthful medium between Paul and Stephen.

Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Giamatti's superb work overshadows a weak if not tired script by Mr. Clooney, Mr. Heslov and Mr. Willimon, one full of the political rhetoric we've heard oft-times before.  While "The Ides Of March" pauses for some examination of the Democratic Party and its varying maladies, it never rises beyond the level of standard political thriller.  The landscape is well-worn: the badgering journalist, the Monica Lewinsky-like intern, the deception that lurks and corrupts, and the power of scandal that threatens destroys the aphrodisiac of power itself. 

"The Ides Of March" is a small-scale film that weaves together disparate ideas fairly well, especially in the film's final 40 minutes, but while there are occasions when the film percolates it's not riveting drama.  Some of the situations are telegraphed, and others aren't as predictable.  The film carries with it a few extra doses of sloganeering, although it isn't clear whether "Ides" is parodying or merely parroting the ready-made politic-speak we're all accustomed to.  Still, the psychological fisticuffs on display are often enjoyable, as are Mr. Hoffman's anguished expressions and a great line he utters near the film's end. 

Mr. Clooney, who directed the very impressive political drama "Good Night, And Good Luck." several years ago, has crafted in "The Ides Of March" a film with less nuance and substance.  Style-wise, there's a feeling that Mr. Clooney forced his own hand too much with many shots of shadowy, silhouetted players.  Some of it is repetitive and, in one scene, overstays its welcome.  The overtures of style makes some of the dramatic and climatic moments bigger and clumsier than they need to be, especially within the confines of such an intimate film.  Where "Good Night" had less obvious style points "Ides" tends to play with them a little too much.

The ensemble actors carry the day well enough by themselves.  Jeffrey Wright is also great in a small role as a senator pivotal to Morris's presidential hopes.  He's just the way he was in "Source Code" earlier this year: sniveling.  Jennifer Ehle (great in last month's "Contagion") provides a nice touch as Morris's wife, who's not just an appendage but in one good scene shows her own political acumen and sense of engagement.  She's not robotic, and she's more full-blooded than some of the spouses of politicians we've seen in real life.

Mr. Gosling, good though not great here, is certainly getting the due he deserves this year on the big screen.  If you count last year's "Blue Valentine", which expanded around the U.S. and Canada in January, Mr. Gosling has four very different films in a calendar year in which he's provided solid work.  As Stephen Myers in "Ides" he's
opportunistic, intense and plays the game of politics like Bobby Fischer played chess.  He gets an education in the maelstrom of politics but he gives one, too.

With: Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Max Minghella, Gregory Itzin, Michael Mantell, Maya Sayre, Bella Ivory.

"The Ides Of March" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for pervasive language.  The film also contains some sexual situations.  The film's running time is one hour and 41 minutes. 

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