'The Ides of March': Unintended ode to an innocent era before wide stances, Craigslist-trolls and wayward tweets
4:16 pm Oct. 7, 2011
Is it a surprise to anyone that American politics can be a dirty business?
We've all seen Bill Clinton wagging his finger at us and we've witnessed the downfall of onetime liberal golden boy John Edwards; we've seen socially conservative, morally judgmental Republican congressmen and senators topless on Craigslist and in wide stances in airport bathrooms. Peripatetic politicians are constantly exposed to material and sexual temptation, and not at all infrequently, they yield to it.
The Ides of March, George Clooney's latest directorial effort, deals with fairly recent real-life events: It's loosely based on the play "Farragut North," which was loosely based on the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean and (very loosely) the experiences of Dean campaign aide Jay Carson.
Yet the movie seems to belong to an earlier, less knowing era, way back when the public would be shocked and saddened by such revelations. It's been a long time since I've felt this cynical watching a film.
The Ides of March, as its title suggests, wants to be more than the story of a misbehaving presidential candidate. It wants to be a cry of pain for the loss of innocence, and a warning that enemies are everywhere, even in your own camp. It wants to be a devastating critique of our political process. But it is none of those things. The Ides of March is a well-acted yet strangely muffled story of one ideologically fervent staffer who realizes the man he works for, and reveres, is not perfect.
George Clooney plays Mike Morris, the governor of Pennsylvania, gearing up for the Ohio Democratic Party debate. His opponent is Senator Pullman, from Arkansas (a man we never see except on television monitors). It is a close race.
The film starts with Morris staffer Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) testing the mic before the debate, and acting like someone who is high up the chain of command. ("Make sure these podiums are raised, the governor has to see his notes, OK?") Although he looks young, Meyers informs a fellow staffer that he has worked on more campaigns than he can count. Yet he doesn't just work for Governor Morris. He is a True Believer. Not only will Governor Morris win, but "he must win," says Meyers.
No party affiliation is mentioned, but Governor Morris' talking points, heard in campaign speeches (in person, and on television clips) are progressive ones. He declares in the debate that he is not a "Christian, a Muslim or a Jew—my religion is the Constitution of the United States of America," something that naturally gets him into trouble with his opponent who wants to know if he believes in the Bible. (The real Howard Dean, who went on after his presidential defeat to chair the Democratic National Committee, said frequently that his party needed to steer the national discourse away from "guns, God and gays" in order to be more competitive in red-state America.)
But The Ides of March isn't really about Governor Morris at all. It's about the shattering of Stephen Meyers' belief system.
Paul Zara (played with wonderful, cold-eyed clarity by Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a counterpoint to his role as the Oakland A's ever-credulous manager in Moneyball) is Stephen Meyers' boss. He has no time for ideological fervor. He's a realist. The scenes between Gosling and Hoffman suddenly spark and sizzle, in the midst of the almost dead air in the film's first half-hour.
Things start to get even more interesting when Marisa Tomei, who plays a New York Times reporter covering the campaign, enters the scene, trying to get the inside scoop from Meyers and Zara.
Paul Giamatti plays Tom Duffy, Paul Zara's counterpart in the opposing campaign, and he tries to poach Stephen Meyers from the Morris campaign. This is a move that will have vast repercussions for Meyers personally. Giamatti and Hoffman are the two gritty pillars of political reality, with Gosling caught in the middle, still thinking that the whole point of politics is to believe in something.
Meanwhile, Stephen Meyers starts a romance with a pretty intern (Evan Rachel Wood), whose father also happens to be the head of the D.N.C. She's got a secret, a terrible secret, which she eventually unloads on Stephen because she needs help. "I'm in trouble," she tells him.
Meyers finds himself in the position of doing damage-control, which seems to shock and trouble him, which is hard to believe. If you've worked on more campaigns than you can count, as you have told us, then "damage control" should be part of the job, shouldn't it?
One of Clooney's great strengths as a director is his willingness to limit his potentially overwhelming presence as an actor in order to let his ensemble shine. His projects are not vanity projects. You can see that in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck and Leatherheads, and you can see it here in The Ides of March. He casts well and then gets out of the way. The individual scenes in The Ides of March, between Hoffman and Gosling, between Giamatti and Gosling, between Gosling and Tomei, are riveting. Evan Rachel Wood can be heartbreaking and she is here, although I found her over-styled blonde hair a strange choice. (She's an intern holed up in a Motel 6, and she looks like that?)
Still, the film revolves around Clooney's Governor Morris, even when he's not in it. He is the focal point of everyone's lives, and except for one scene in a limo with his well-trained, ambitious political wife (Jennifer Ehle), we don't see him in private. We see him through Ryan Gosling's eyes.
Maybe that's part of the problem. If he's a politician on the campaign trail, and you are an American who watches the news and is well-informed, then you already know that he is not perfect, and that there's a good chance he has skeletons in his closet. As a result, the story lacks tension. In the cynical and paranoid decade of the 1970s, filmmakers attacked and examined the political process in film after film after film. It was a national obsession, coming on the heels of the self-involvement of the late 1960s. Institutions are corrupt, the emperor has no clothes, who can we believe in anymore, who can we trust, etc. The anguish of those questions is felt in those films in a palpable way. The Ides of March, by by making the anguish Stephen Meyers', lowers the stakes.
Clooney plays Governor Morris as a passionate and smooth guy, comfortable in the limelight, and equally comfortable hashing out talking points with Ryan Gosling. His best performance so far has been in 2010's The American, a nearly wordless piece of acting suggesting great sadness and loneliness. But he is always entertaining to watch. He exudes intelligence.
Ryan Gosling's slow and reluctant removal of his blinders is the weakest part of the film (unfortunately, since that is the whole point), although one late-night scene with Evan Rachel Wood was particularly powerful, with vast stretches of silence as an uncomfortable truth pervades the room.
Gosling is good at playing complex characters. He suggests mutiple layers of thought and feeling in every moment. At one point, he says to Ida, the Times reporter, "Ida, you're my best friend."
It's an odd line. It is hard to know if he is serious or not, but judging from the isolation in which he operates, it seems plausible. Gosling makes you feel this guy's loneliness.
Shot beautifully by Phedon Papamichael, The Ides of March is dark and lush, and appropriately troglodytic, given the nature of campaign work. It's all offices, restaurants and hotel rooms. There is one standout shot of Giamatti and Gosling standing behind a giant American flag on the debate stage, their two thoughtful and troubled silhouettes coming out in stark relief, reminiscent of the opening scene of Patton, except in reverse, or of the moody photographs of John F. Kennedy conferring with his brother at the White House during the Cuban missile crisis. The Ides of March is not showy visually, but that is a very showy shot, and a bit unbalancing to the whole. Like the movie as a whole, it seems to portend something important, and fairly vibrates with meaning. But what, exactly, is the meaning?
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