American cinema has a long tradition of political dramas. The genre has touched on political intrigue, conspiracy theories and tales of power struggles from the White House and Capitol Hill. A long list of ’A’ list actors and directors have been drawn to the subject which can be approached from so many angles. So it was no surprise when it was announced that politically aware actor George Clooney would be directing the 2011 film The Ides of March.
Based on a play, Farragut North, we follow Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), a media consultant on the campaign to get Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) the Democratic party nomination to run for president. Stephen is an idealist who believes in the truth. He works on Morris’s campaign because he believes in him and what he represents. He is very good at his job, enjoys the challenges and dramas and wants ultimately to be at the heart of government. The campaign has reached a crucial stage. The team is in Ohio and they must secure several key political backers in order to win the nomination. The campaign is being managed by long-term political operator Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Paul and Stephen work closely together on a daily basis trying to outwit their only serious rival to the nomination, a senator from Arkansas. His campaign is being run by another veteran advisor Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti).
With the Ohio primary looming Stephen gets involved with a young assistant Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), the daughter of the head of the Democratic National Party . He makes it clear that his only concern is his work. Anything else, no matter how much fun, is secondary. At the same time a call from Tom Duffy peaks his curiosity. Tom is trying to persuade him to change allegiances and in the process totally derail Governor Morris’s campaign. Stephen keeps the offer to himself and while deciding what to tell his bosses Molly hits him with another bombshell. Everything looks like it could fall apart and it all hinges on the decisions that Stephen has to make.
The main theme of this film is belief. Stephen has an ideal that he wants to, in fact needs to, believe in. It gives him purpose. He doesn’t want to end up like the other political operators who end up with million dollar consultancy firms in Washington. He does it for the ideal. The veteran advisers believe that the only way to get elected is to make shady deals and promises. Make enough people promises and they can take the candidate all the way to the White House. Governor Morris believes in the truth. He doesn’t claim to know everything. He doesn’t boast of military glories and high-powered friends. He wants to represent the ordinary American. What the film shows is that they all cannot exist in the one reality.
George Clooney is starting to become an accomplished director. He has learned lessons through his own work on the underrated ’Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and the thought-provoking McCarthy era drama Good Night, and Good Luck. Through his wide variety of acting roles he has obviously picked a few tips and techniques from some of the top directors working today. Wisely in The Ides of March he allows the story to flow and has the camera primarily focussed on the lead actor, Ryan Reynolds. It is a testament to Clooney’s confidence and maturity that he did not try to expand his own role in the film which could have changed the dynamic of the piece. It is interesting to note that the film was originally meant to be shot and released during the Obama presidential race. Clooney decided that it would be a distraction to Obama’s bid if a high-profile and vocal supporter released a film which questions the process and the ethics of the process.
The faith in placed in Ryan Gosling by George Clooney pays dividends. Currently, he is the most interesting actor working in major studio movies. He has shown over the last two years that he is a versatile and very able actor in both supporting roles and as the lead. He is able to convey a great deal by apparently doing very little on-screen. That he is able to shine in the face of such strong support from Hoffman and Giamatti makes it even more impressive. Both of these gents, some time leading men in their own right, have a tendency to dominate in a scene so the fact that all eyes are drawn to Reynolds makes it all the more impressive.
With a short ninety minute running time the film surprisingly takes a while to really hit its stride. The first half is all exposition but it is worth sticking with it. You will be rewarded with an engrossing tale that will have you thinking about it long after it is finished. In my book that is the sign of a really good film.
So why a title like The Ides of March? My theory is that is refers to the fact the Caesar was murdered by the very people he regarded as friends and colleagues. In the film the candidates are supposed to be on the same side fighting against the Republicans. In reality they are out to destroy all opponents no matter their beliefs and if a little blood is spilled along the way, so be it.
Overall an engrossing political tale full of great performances and understated direction. Highly recommended.