Movies – The Ides of March

7 Oct

The Ides of March, the new movie co-written, directed, and co-starring George Clooney, is being badly mismarketed. Based on the trailers, a viewer could reasonably expect a political thriller involving political dirty tricks, scandal, and maybe a murder or two. What the viewer actually gets is more of a political drama, no less intriguing, but not quite what’s being promised.

The Ides of March takes place in Ohio in the weeks leading up to that state’s Presidential primary. The year is undetermined, but based on context, it appears to be an alternate universe version of 2008. The Democratic field has been winnowed down to two contenders, Governor Mike Mason (Clooney) and Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell), and they are running neck-and-neck in Ohio. The winner of that state will most likely win the endorsement of Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright) of North Carolina, whose 350 delegates will deliver the nomination to the candidate.

Ides of March, is not a movie about the candidates, however. The movie is more concerned with the campaign workers, specifically Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), a campaign strategist working for the Mason campaign. Myers is a brilliant media consultant, reporting to campaign manager Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and the two make up Mason’s braintrust. As the primary enters its final stretch and victory seems at hand, things begin to unravel based on double-dealing, leaks, and secrets that refuse to stay secret.

Gosling is the real star of the movie, finishing up a stellar summer which began with Crazy, Stupid Love and continued through Drive. He portrays Myers as an experienced campaign hand who can still be drawn in by the charisma and rhetoric of his candidate, working not for the man, but for the cause he represents. Hoffman is the perfect foil, or maybe counterpart, as Paul, the cynical, seen-it-all staffer who still values loyalty above all else. Clooney, as the Mason, is really a suporting character in everything but billing, though the scenes he does have are memorable, especially a quiet limo scene with his wife (Jennifer Ehle) and the climactic confrontation with Myers, as each man attempts to gauge exactly how far the other is willing to go.

The supporting characters hold their own, including Ehle in the one scene in which she has significant dialogue (the aforementioned limo conversation), Marissa Tomei as a New York Times journalist covering the campaign, and Evan Rachel Wood as a campaign intern. Paul Giamatti, as Paul’s counterpart on the Pullman campaign, offers a typically cranky Giamatti performance (and yes, I mean that as a compliment).

Clooney the director approaches what could be a blustery, overblown subject with a largely subdued touch. The quiet of most of the scenes make the (figurative) explosions all the more effective. and some of the key moments take place off-screen. This leads in some instances to an “anything can happen” feeling, and the tension at some points is palpable, especially in a long, lingering shot of the front of a car late in the film.

If the film strikes a wrong chord anywhere, it’s that Mason may be a little too far to the left to be considered a viable candidate. I suppose with some of the extremes that we’ve seen in real-life politics, just about anything is possible, but I just found some of his statements a little extreme in a political context for a candidate who has progressed so far toward the Presidency.

The Ides of March may not be the political thriller that its ad campaign is making it out to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a really good time at the theater. Even as the characters are high-level practicitioners of their craft, so too are the actors (and director Clooney) at the top of their game as well. Hopefully the real Presidential campaign next year will be half as entertaining.

My score: 8 Cheeseburgers

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