Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Ides of March

The inside political story The Ides of March pulses with ideas and terse tension, and neatly comes packaged as the fourth feature to be directed by uber-Hollywood prince George Clooney.  Based on the play Farragut North, penned by Beau Willimon, who co-wrote the screenplay with Clooney and Grant Heslov, the film is set and attuned to the behind the scenes machinations of an impending Ohio primary and it's two prolific Democratic hopefuls.  With its starry cast and overly ripe, 24-hour news-primped setting, the stakes are high, and the promise and potential are met with a swift intelligence and sparkling dialogue, and the stage is set for a serious-minded indictment of modern politicizing and all the backstabbing and compromise that comes, one that taint even the purest values, as asserts the film, and well, reality.  That aching cynicism of modern campaigning is ripe for scrutiny, and respectably mounted, but it becomes apparent fairly quickly in The Ides of March that all its good intentions are mere window dressing; what's missing is the potent meatiness in a story of good men caught up in bad politics.  What's left is a group of well trained, groomed and versed collection of actors truly acting the hell out of their respective parts, pointed speeches and all.

The film starts, rather amusingly and tellingly false, as a young man takes to the pulpit.  He's one of the top aides to presidential hopeful and current governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), a smart, idealistic young pup with a gift for spin, and gone adrift after long ago drinking the governor's Kool-Aid-- his name is Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling.)  What Ides gets right very early on is the unflinching, almost disarming connection between campaigners and the press, and the spinning of values and facts are mere side notes-- winning is only the option, everything else is crap, and it matters little the scruples needed to get there.  There's an early sequence that's almost chilling in its nonchalance between Stephen, Morris' head aide Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the Maureen Dowd-like columnist, played with feverish and intimating liberal flirtiness by Marisa Tomei; over drinks the three dance to clever words that are never quite on nor off the record, that strike personal, professional, and utterly savage.  The trick is, that no one has the higher ground at that stage, as both parties-- the Morris men and the journalist are too dependent on one another-- that is until someone is thrown under the bus.  This is after all, a film that gathers its title from Julius Caesar.

It turns out to be two temptations that may or may not send Stephen left to dust.  The first comes with an ominous invitation to join the rival Democratic campaign, led by the oppositions behind the scenes guy Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti.)  The second comes from the flirty advances of a young intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), who's innocence is squashed nearly completely in her first scene...surely Stephen's seen Mildred Pierce.  Whatever the case or easy outs to explore the devil and angel shoulder dynamics The Ides of March wants to tell, it's basically a fairly simple story of one man's thorny experiences of playing with fire, and corrupting power of politics, no matter how strong ones ideals might be at the beginning.  And so it becomes a sort of mixed blessing that the Stephen is played by Gosling, a triumphant actor, whose radiance and charm are so clear, even in the slimiest or least expressive manners, but the troubling factor is that he shades such a knowing intelligence and such a graceful knack for spin in Stephen, that it's hard to quite buy him as an aw-shucks dupe.  And at the same time, his arc from idealist to shark reads too incidental to be genuine.  Yet it's that same intelligence and charm that keeps the movie going as far as it does, as with his generous rapport with the rest of the ensemble; the dance of morality with Hoffman (who's the closest the film has to a moral center), or his tryst with Wood (the closest the film has to an emotional center.)

It's the predictable nature of The Ides of March that ultimately makes the film run out of gas, for a such a well-packaged potboiler, it takes the easy way out, and denounces hard realism for tired and torn-from-the-headlines cliches.  For what's missing is a thought-provoking discussion of the good and bad compass that sadly makes up our modern political process, or an intellectual indictment of made in the media political superstars.  Instead, the film somewhat costs of post-Obama age of disillusionment of the liberal promise and showcases seemingly noble men acting a fool; the likeability of any it's characters comes fairly exclusively from the likeability and charisma of its attractive stars, not the jaded temperament of their behavior.

The film closes with a singular and noteworthy shot, not dissimilar to the one that opened the film; it feels potent because Gosling invests so much into it.  And while it's doesn't quite feel like the perfect fit it should, there's a small dash of gravitas and and (perhaps unearned) potency in the slimy revenge morality paying off.  Perhaps nothing really ever changed in Stephen, and perhaps that's the point of the tale, whatever the case, the actorly range is nearly enough to save the self-serious Ides, but not quite.  B-

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