MFR Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
If The West Wing needed an evil twin, George Clooney may have just created it. No Leo, CJ or smart quips from Toby, The Ides of March shows the Machiavellian machinery of political ambition with an icy coldness through the instinctive raw manipulation of the powerful.
Directed, starring and co-written by George Clooney, The Ides of March has one of the most compelling plots I’ve seen for a while. Clooney plays Governor Mike Morris, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. Morris is a straight talking, anti-death penalty, unashamedly secular, liberal. The whole film takes place during the Ohio primary and Morris knows a win would all but guarantee his victory, not just for the nomination but also probably for the White House. Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Meyers, a young, hotshot Junior Campaign Manager for Morris. Meyers believes in Morris wholeheartedly, not just as someone he can get elected, but someone who can make a change. After a debate, Meyers receives a call from Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), Campaign Manager for the rival campaign and Meyers curiously accepts Duffy’s offer of a meeting, a meeting that appears to have transparent intentions but sparks a narrative of misplaced trust, disloyalty and manipulation.
The first thing that needs to be credited is Gosling’s performance. Gosling has suddenly become omnipresent and I must say I was yet to be completely convinced by our new savior of Hollywood. Sure, Drive was bold and stylish, but Gosling’s quiet, emotionless getaway man left me slightly cold. Strangely, Gosling again gives a rather detached performance but this time it doesn’t feel like he’s over doing it, helped by some strong dialogue and a particularly impressive supporting cast. Although it’s not a huge role, Paul Giamatti is absolutely terrific as Duffy and looks and talks every bit a campaign manager. Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t over do it and plays things very straight as Morris’ campaign manager, Paul Zara. All of the leads really had the capacity to over-act their roles in a quest for Oscars, but they manage to pull it back with devastating coolness.
Discussions of open primaries, endorsements and delegates might not be to everyone’s taste but it doesn’t shy away from talking strategy giving the film a real depth. I’ve heard reviews that have criticized the character development of Meyers but I consider it a remarkable achievement. Without wanting to give anything away, Meyers goes on an almighty journey, triggered by a single misjudgment in the space of a 101 minute film. Despite never feeling climatic, it underplays its plot and asks you to keep up without being impenetrable (take note Tinker Tailor screenwriters). It provides a glaring insight into the minds of these characters, exploring facets that felt like they always existed, but weren’t immediately apparent.
I said earlier that The Ides of March shows the dark side of politics and Clooney supplements that perfectly with some excellent uses of lighting. Goodnight and Goodluck showed Clooney’s directorial potential and with the types of performances he got out of his cast from this film, he’s got a strong directorial future. Although, let’s be honest, when you hire a cast like Clooney’s assembled here you’re definitely giving yourself a leg up.
It’s interesting to note that despite Clooney’s liberal politics, he chooses to cast his characters as Democrats, even though it is apparently left ambiguous in the original stage version. By providing Morris the identity of such a liberal idealist, it gives the film’s trajectory an even greater tragic element but avoids feeling preachy. The film’s final scene is perfect. Despite being a film about a variety of vindictive quests for political power (and presenting a lead character who is far from likeable), its ability to provoke not merely apathy but admiration for the film’s eventual victor is admirable.
Ok, it has some flaws, particularly the way the storyline regarding Meyers’ love interest is handled, which provokes really delicate and emotional issues that are brushed under the carpet too hastily. But somehow the strength of the greater narrative looks past that. The film contains a low, slow beat, a beat that really punches to the heart of ambition. It’s cold, slippery and malicious, and it’s really rather good.
Ides of March is out now in the UK and USA. Running time 101 mins Certificate 15 (UK).
Review by David Rank