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Non-Review Review: The Ides of March

It’s very hard to make a movie about politics without feeling a little bit forced – as if you’re shoehorning in a particular viewpoint or an ideology, setting up strawmen for the movie to bulldoze over on the way to the final scene. It’s to director (and actor) George Clooney’s credit that The Ides of March manages to avoid seeming too preachy or too staged, instead opting to comment on the nature of political integrity, rather than accusing specific ideologies of having it or lacking it. Set within a Democratic Presidential Primary, the movie shrewdly avoids focusing on an ideological or political gap, instead contemplating the harsh realities of any political maneuvering.

Are the gloves coming off?

The Ides of March is being released into Irish cinemas in the wake of one of the most controversial and divisive Irish Presidential Elections ever to take place. It’s quite a compliment to Clooney’s film, adapted by the actor from a stage play, that it feels just a relevant to the Irish political system as it does to an internal party poll in the heart of Ohio. While there may be some cosmetic differences to the mechanics of nominations and elections, there’s a sense that the movie is simply exposing what goes on beneath the hood of any organised political system.

The movie follows the attempt by Governor Mike Morris to secure the Democratic nomination for the US Presidential Election. Morris is fictional, of course, but he draws from any number of previous Democratic candidates – especially the two most recent successful ones. Like Obama, Morris seems to offer real change to the country, with a wealth of brave and bold ideas that seem to catch on with younger voters. Indeed, his posters, ubiquitous throughout the movie, are clearly designed to evoke the iconic Obama “Hope” posters. Clooney himself, with his grey hair and quick wit, calls to mind Bill Clinton, as does the fact that he’s seeking the nomination as the governor of a state. In short, he’s that young and enthusiastic candidate, who seems like a breath of fresh air. In fact, we’re assured that the Republicans are completely disorganised and unable to produce a charming opponent, arguably reflecting the campaigns of both Obama and Clinton.

Backroom politics...

The entire race depends on the outcome of the Ohio Presidential Primary. “As Ohio goes,” one reporter whips out the cliché, “so goes the nation.” This is a nice little framing device, because it allows Clooney to tell his story without worrying about the traditional left/right divide in American politics. In essence, Governor Morris is competing against a candidate who shares the majority of his own views (at least in theory), so the ideological conflict doesn’t exist. As much as I liked Aaron Sorkin’s show, I always felt that The West Wing struggled with portraying Republican opposition to a Democratic President, because it was so concerned with engaging on a technical and practical level (“we need x votes” or “we need y bill to pass”) that it generally ignored the very real political gulf that existed, which felt a bit disingenuous. Without having to worry about the candidate’s stance on issues, the story is free to concentrate on the nitty-gritty stuff.

Our focus character is veteran staffer Stephen Meyers, played by Ryan Gosling coming off a strong string of roles. Meyers isn’t as naive as you might suspect, but he seems to be swept up in the Morris hype machine. “You’ve drank the KoolAid,”a reporter sarcastically suggests, and Meyers concedes it eagerly. From the moment that Meyers reveals himself to be something other than a complete cynic, the trajectory of the movie is set. What follows is precisely-executed carnage, where Clooney keeps everything perfectly under control as events and revelations spiral. There isn’t a single moment that rings false amid the twists and turns that follow, which is quite remarkable.

A candid date?

The film is, to be fair, remarkably predictable, but the skill is in the execution. All the moments and motivations and interactions all feel organic, and all make sense in context. I think it’s important that the story doesn’t start with an idealised view of politics or political figures, which means that it doesn’t feel like it’s being very naive in how it approaches the subject matter. Of course, we learn that Morris broke “the one rule”, but we’re also introduced to a character can be a bit wishy-washy on his answers, who is cynical about his numbers, and who is willing to take any advantage over his competitor (to the point where they rig the podium so his opponent looks “like a Hobbit”).

While he might cling to principles (“when we started this, I said we were not going to make those kind of deals,”he reminds his staff at one point), there’s never a sense that Morris or anyone around him is especially innocent or blind to the basic realities of electoral politics. the story works so well, because it takes that basic cynicism as its starting point.

A plane-speaking politician?

While Clooney has populated the film with a stellar cast, it’s Gosling who must carry the film, and he does a mostly admirable job. He works really well with the rest of the cast, and he makes Stephen feel like a fully-formed character, with his own moral and political compass, rather than just a vehicle for the plot. However, there ae some moments that fall a bit flat. In Drive, I admired Gosling’s ability to under-play the role, to give the impression of a burning heart beneath an icy exterior. Here, there are some moments where it seems Gosling has forgotten his subtlety.

There are several sequences in the film where Gosling has his character respond to bad news with a look that reminds me of a deer in the headlamps – creating the impression of a character with no control of what’s happening, in complete and utter terror. This approach works once, or even twice, for the juicier revelations, but it eventually seems like Meyers is the kind of guy who responds to his coffee being cold by staring in middle distance for ten to fifteen minutes, looking like he has resigned himself to being hit by a freight train. There are moments when it seems like the rest of the cast should check Meyers for a “reboot” switch.

Meyers is fully on board...

That aside, Gosling is great. In particular, he has great chemistry with Evan Rachel Wood, playing a young intern on the campaign trail. In fact, the entire supporting ensemble is great. There’s one brilliant scene with Paul Giamatti, where he’s talking on the phone and dealing with a crisis, trying to sound calm and collected, but the hand holding the phone is shaking – it’s a perfect little moment there. The cast is rounded off with solid turns from actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Marisa Tomei and Jennifer Ehle. I think that actors tend to have a knack for constructing strong ensembles, and Clooney has definitely demonstrated it in the past.

However, Clooney’s also just a really good director. As well as being one of the few modern leading men who has that almost ethereal “old Hollywood”charm and statesmanship, Clooney has proven himself a fantastic director. Here, his work isn’t intrusive or showy, but there are several beautiful compositions. I admire his use of images-within-images, reflecting the nature of modern political campaign. There’s one particular shot, of Gosling and Hoffman chatting, silhouetted behind an American flag, which is just lovely. I honestly think Clooney is well on track to prove himself as distinguished a director as he is an actor, which is no mean feat.

Don't press him...

If the film has a flaw, it does struggle a bit with pacing towards the end. It reaches a perfectly logical and comfortable conclusion, but it seems to stop and start in the final act, as the pieces move around the board. Alexandre Desplat’s score is a little bit overwhelming in places, especially for a film that is trying to be as intimate as this one. However, these are relatively minor complaints in the grand scheme of things.

The Ides of March is another strong film from Clooney, and a strong start to the traditional “Oscar season.” It’s an accessible and engaging political drama, but one with a very strong bite to it, if only because it manages to avoid the more awkward clichés of the genre.

6 Responses

  1. I was expecting it to say more than it did. We know that all politicians start off from places of cynicism. It’s how they are. Maybe because of my educational background I just didn’t see anything new in it. That said, great performances all around.

    • Yep, all the Irish reviewers were saying the same thing – given the political scandals in our country, this isn’t nearly as shocking as it’s made to seem. But I liked it, if only because it didn’t start from pure innocence, which I’ve always found condescending – it strains suspension of disbelief that anybody involved in national politics could ever reach the start of a movie without some believable level of cynicism. Steven’s level of cynicism here seemed plausible, and I liked that – the fact that he kinda knew that he should be less accepting than he ultimately was. Plus the fact that there were hints from the start he was a self-interested so-and-so.

  2. I really liked this movie and with a cast like this it was amazing to see so much talent put together. Of course Gosling shows that he’s a big talent here.

    • I don’t know. Gosling was the weak link here for me, which is strange, because I love the guy elsewhere. Here he just seemed to go into a “blue screen of death” stare at the slightest provocation. It was intense the first two times, but – after that – it became kind of surreal. It reminded me of that great gag from the Simpsons, where the guy keeps breaking his monacle. “That’s my fourth monacle this week! I simply must stop being so surprised!” Except Gosling would have to say “reboot” instead of “monacle.”

  3. Good review, and you’re right in saying that it is impressive that there were no cliches. Have a read at my review,


    What do you think?

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