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The Ides of March Review

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by Casimir Harlow Jan 31, 2012

    The Ides of March Review

    “The Ides of March” literally means the middle of March (i.e. the 15th), although it is more commonly remembered as the date on which Julius Caesar was assassinated... for the greater good.

    In the run-up to the Oscars it looks like quite a year for George Clooney, who is not only finally within grasping distance of winning Best Actor (after rather disappointingly losing out with his Oscar-worthy performance in the excellent Michael Clayton; understandable only because he was up against Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood) but is also up for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for his work on adapting the prize-winning stage play Farragut North into this, his latest director/producer/writer/supporting actor effort, The Ides of March.

    The story follows Stephen Meyers, the Deputy Campaign Manager for Governor Mike Morris – a man who is tipped to be the next President. Morris is currently competing in the Presidential Primary against a Senator, the both of them vying for the place of democratic Presidential frontrunner. Meyers worships Morris; believes wholeheartedly that this man deserves to be the next President because he can truly make a difference. Meyers also happens to be the brains behind the entire campaign, a fact which Tom Duffy, the campaign manager of the opposing candidate, knows all too well. So when Duffy asks Meyers to a clandestine meeting with a view to poaching him to work for the enemy, it sets into motion a chain of events which threatens the careers of all of those involves.

    “We’re gonna’ be fine. We have to do it, it's the right thing to do and nothing bad happens when you’re doing the right thing.”
    “Is this your personal theory? ‘Cause I can shoot holes in it.”

    George Clooney’s latest directorial project is a stark, often cynical, but generally also very honest and realistic look at the murky, back-stabbing world of politics. Whilst some will read this as meaning that the film is stodgy, slow-paced and largely uneventful, perhaps that’s the point: this is real life we are looking at here, made all the more relevant considering the ongoing Presidential Primaries which will decide who is to stand against Obama when he goes for his second term.

    Indeed there are a great many references – both subtle and direct – towards real-life events littered throughout the piece, with our glorious new Presidential hopeful campaigning off the back of such proposals as “retiring the internal combustion engine” and “evening out tax for everybody”. Relatively recent revelations about a certain political candidate’s net worth being in the millions, and about the fact that he pays next to no tax certainly make this point in the movie very relevant, poignant and, if anything, a personal slight from George Clooney to the politician in question. Clooney himself is something of an outspoken individual when it comes to political and humanitarian causes and a great many of the ideals and arguments that he puts over in character, I suspect, are the same as those he himself holds: from his feelings over the wars in the Middle East, to his views on our dependency on the oil there; from his views on capital punishment to his views on same-sex marriages. I would be surprised if, given the level of involvement he has in his directorial projects, the script to this film was not wholly rewritten to take in exactly what he himself believed.

    “I'm not a Christian. I'm not an Atheist. I'm not Jewish. I'm not Muslim. My religion, what I believe in, is called the Constitution of United States of America.”

    Clooney also makes for a great political candidate – fantastic before the press, absorbing and charming in public, and even more so when it comes to giving speeches, and great at debating even if he does not always have all the answers. He comes across as earnest, well-motivated and, for the most part, quite moral, even if perhaps the focus of this drama is to call his ethics into question. This may be fictional Governor George Clooney we’re dealing with, but one has to wonder whether this is pretty close to what we would get if he ever did run for political office. I suspect that many would back him, and I suspect one has to wonder whether this movie is marginally disappointing as a bit of a ‘what could have been’ alternate reality tale which forebears the fact that the man may never take that extra step in that direction.

    Clooney himself, of course, is not the star of this particular show – he may well be the Caesar of the story but he’s still not the character that the spotlight is upon, as anybody who has ever watched a Clooney-directed film should know to expect. No, instead the lead goes to Ryan Gosling.

    “All the reporters love you. Even the reporters that hate you still love you.”

    Gosling is certainly the man of the moment. At the moment. 2011, whilst an arguably underwhelming year at the flicks, was still his year. After surprising us with the heartfelt romance of The Notebook a while back, last year he gave audiences a trifecta of great performances: from that in the – in my opinion – Film of the Year, Drive, as a dangerous loner, to his unusually multi-faceted performance in the surprisingly honest rom-com Crazy, Stupid, Love, to this, his stab at political drama and intrigue. Indeed, if anything, it’s only Ides of March that comes close to letting the side down.

    Whilst Gosling’s portrayal of this young upcoming politico caught up in a plot that calls into question everything he has ever believed in, is a commendable one, and one which hooks you throughout, there’s just one problem: he can’t do idealistic. There’s a lot of things Gosling can bring to bear in a character – anger, love, charm, wit, charisma, warmth, coldness, and maybe even, just about, happiness – and his Brando-esque take on underacting generally works very well at drawing you in and grabbing your attention (even if it rubs some people up the wrong way as being frustratingly aloof) but there’s one thing that I just don’t buy from him: idealism. The idea that Gosling, so charming, so assured, so intelligent and well-reasoned in his arguments – particularly in this film – could possibly be naive enough to say and think some of the things that his character is supposed to say/think?... Well, suffice to say, I wasn’t sold. After openly admitting to crossing the line on several occasions, and playing dirty with regards to negative publicity for their opponent, how are we supposed to accept the things he says without calling into question his genuine belief in them. At one point he says to Clooney’s Governor that “nothing bad happens when you are doing the right thing” – and Clooney wittily responds to detract from the naivety of the initial statement. But are we really supposed to buy into the fact that Gosling’s character believes in things like this? Certainly, if we are (and, I suspect, we are, at least in terms of his character’s story arc) then Gosling is simply not capable of conveying an authentic sense of true idealism and utter innocence in the role. There’s just too much of that knowing look in his eyes, and in his smile. He’s not a fool, and you would arguably have to be one to have gotten this far up in a Campaign – and in a political career – to say stuff like this.

    “I'll do or say anything if I believe in it. But I have to believe in the cause.”

    That said it does not take you out of the picture, or make it any less enjoyable, it just means that you probably don’t absorb the piece in exactly the way in which Clooney intended. Instead you see the movie through the eyes of a lead character who, despite what he says, you think is (at least at the end) just as tainted and world-weary as the rest of them. Which, it should be noted, is not the point. But more of that later.

    The supporting cast are unreservedly excellent. Phillip Seymour Hoffman (The Big Lebowski, Mission: Impossible III, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) excels at playing characters you love to hate, and whilst this is far from a clear-cut ‘hate’ role – indeed there’s much to admire – he still brilliantly portrays a man who has become cynical to the point where it is almost impossible for him to trust anybody. Opposing him we have Paul Giamatti (Shoot ‘Em Up, The Last Station), who works perfectly as every bit his equal: a conniving, back-stabbing manipulator who has also been hardened over time and will now do whatever it takes to win. Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) continues to surprise, having had something of resurgence in her career over the last few years, and she is also great as the loyal-to-no-one journalist covering the political machinations. And Evan Rachel Wood, who has also had a fair amount of solid dramatic success, and was also in The Wrestler, brings both sympathy and tragedy to her role as the innocent young intern caught up in the thick of this murky political quagmire.

    “You can lie, you can cheat, you can start a war, you can bankrupt the country, but you can't f**k the interns. They get you for that.”

    Driven by compelling performances, and with a reasonably interesting, mostly intriguing political / conspiratorial plot going on in the background, The Ides of March is certainly a very watchable movie. Clooney masterfully commands the camera, perfectly using light and dark to reflect the on-screen moods and more sinister themes, and makes exceptional use of simple slow zooms, where other Directors might have gone for grander sequences that simply don't have this kind of clever effect (for example the final zoom, or the bit in the black SUV where you expect to see what happens inside: instead you get this pitch-perfect zoom that allows you to play it out in your head instead).

    All that said, however, this is still far from a classic; it's not a movie that I would rave about as being ‘excellent’, ‘outstanding’ or a ‘must-watch’. One could even argue that, not only would there be far more at stake if we were watching Clooney’s actual political career, but there is also probably far more of interest going on with the real-life Presidential primaries. The Ides of March may be a lesson in basic US politics for politically-uninitiated / international audiences, but that’s simply not enough to give it any kind of weight, punch or significance.

    Indeed perhaps the biggest surprise in the movie – the end – has so wholly been misinterpreted that any lasting resonance or underlying (a)moral message (whatever the cost) has somehow been lost in the confusion.

    “It doesn't matter what you thought. It matters what you did. It matters what you didn't do.”

    For a background into that misunderstood surprise, you have to remember that the script – currently pending Oscar recognition – was adapted from an original stage play called Farragut North; it changes the events concerning some key characters and shifts the focus quite drastically from the Campaign Manager to the Candidate himself and, furthermore, it continues the story long after the script to Farragut North ends. Whilst ostensibly ambiguous in its conclusion, the new adapation is clearly supposed to show the chosen character path for the fallen hero. From the lighting scheme to the cold turn of events, the message is all-but signposted.

    Without drifting too far into spoiler territory, don't be misled, like I was, by the title. The writers have assured that the ending of this film is not in the least bit ambiguous, although I suspect that perhaps the debate will rage on in the forums anyway. As far as I'm concerned, they leave it open just as a measure of the viewer's own cynicism, so that you can 'make up your own ending', but, as far as the characters' true arcs are concerned, it only went down one way. Had Gosling’s character’s integrity and inner belief been more believably portrayed at the outset – so much so that you had no doubts as to his own ethics and morality at the start – then, perhaps, there would have been no doubts about the ending, and the character arc we were viewing. Unfortunately the title, aside from being an inside joke within the story (a politically important date on the campaign), is just further confusing in that it is not some kind of direct reference to Shakespeare – it's merely highlighting the tragic assassination of innocence... for the greater good. It's just a shame that that innocence wasn't more believable to start with.

    At the end of the day, I think this is a perfectly valid political exposé, it’s just a shame that it doesn’t really say anything that we don’t already know. Watch it for the great performances, watch it to see further evidence of Gosling’s potential (even if he’s been miscast here), and watch it if you know nothing about the US political system.

    “He's the only one that's actually going to make a difference in people's lives.”