Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Ides of March (2011)

Politics is a dirty game. It's also a contradictory game, one that pretends to founded on ideals and principles on the surface but thrives on backroom deals, blackmail, and mudslinging; whatever it takes to win. That's the irony of American politics: candidates claim their integrity and honesty, but not a single one of them is completely honest. It's dignity as disguise.

At least, this is the position that George Clooney's new political thriller, The Ides of March, takes. Clooney, who directs and co-wrote the film with Grant Heslov and playwright Beau Willimon, plays Gov. Mike Morris, a Democrat presidential contender hoping to lock down his party's nomination with a win at the Ohio primaries. He has a crack team behind him, lead by old pro Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and young hotshot Steven (Ryan Gosling). Steven is an idealist, claiming that he won't say or do anything he "doesn't believe in." That idealism is tested, however, as events unfold in Ohio that have ramifications that could derail the entire campaign, not to mention the lives of everyone involved.

He's only made four films so far, and they've been pretty spotty at times, but Clooney is actually a pretty incredible director. He may not have a stylistic visual flair, but he sure knows how to compose a scene and make it crackle, as he does over and over again here. There aren't many twists here that should come as a major surprise in theory, but Clooney manages to not only build tension but make those twists pop out of nowhere, making them particularly effective and revelatory. Give credit for this to the excellent script, based on Willimon's hit 2008 play Farragut North (itself inspired by his time working for Howard Dean's ill-fated campaign in 2004), which manages to get it's points across without being heavy-handed, preachy, or obvious. He also makes great use of shadows, at times making the film seem like the marriage of political thriller and film noir. Perhaps the film's greatest miracle is how apolitical it is for a political film: by focusing solely on the Democrats, Clooney let's us see them as flawed, perhaps even despicable beings, and never uses the film as a platform for liberal preaching. He's looking specifically at politics in general, a bold and ultimately very intelligent move at a time when the nation's political fervor is becoming increasing heated as we approach election year. Clooney has a bright future ahead of him as a director if he can bring this level of skill to all his films.

It helps, of course, that the cast is one of the best of the year. Gosling, who's already turned in two great performances this year, is charismatic and smooth as ever, playing his spin-meister role with convincing energy. And when Steven begins to crumble, it's impossible to take your eyes off him (not that you'd want to anyway). Clooney himself is great as an Obama-esque figure, but unlike our president he gives off a hint of malice just under the surface. Evan Rachel Wood, as pretty much the main female character in the film (I know politics is still very much a man's game, but surely there could have been more prominent women here?), is a delight, and Marisa Tomei's few scenes let her ooze oily charm as a New York Times reporter trying to get a good scoop. The two best performances, though, come from two of the most dynamic character actors working today. Paul Giamatti is fantastic as a rival campaign leader who makes an offer to Steven, perfectly embodying the cynicism of the game. And Hoffman is absolutely electric as Paul, the foul-mouthed campaign veteran trying to land Morris a vital senator's endorsement. A confrontation scene with Steven allows Hoffman to give a grand monologue with surprising restraint, a welcome change from an actor who sometimes goes too over-the-top.

The film takes it's name from that ill-fated day that Caesar was warned to beware. He was lucky, though: for the characters of Ides of March, there is no warning for the backstabbing and betrayal that's to come. The result is a terrific political thriller that I'll dare say belongs in the same ranks as All the President's Men. A+

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