Monday, November 28, 2011

The Ides of March

With echoes of Machiavelli, a Shakespearean title, and a slather of Sun Tzu, George Clooney’s The Ides of March is a punchy portrait of contemporary politics. But let’s get this out of the way up front: this is no Julius Caesar. In fact, Clooney might just have namedropped a little more than he can muster, for while brilliantly acted and thoroughly watchable, this political drama doesn’t quite manage to be as smart and savvy as it wants to be.

Based on the semi-autobiographical play Farragut North by erstwhile idealistic political staffer Beau Willimon, Ides (from a Washington Metro station to a Shakespearean reference, take the name change for what you will) traverses the professional coming-of-age of suave press secretary Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling). Meyers is a true believer: passionately working for campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) on the charismatic Governor Morris’ (Clooney) Presidential campaign, with the duo neck deep in the Ohio Democratic primary. Running the rival Democratic camp is the bristling, Karl Rove-esque Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who spies Meyers’ fresh-faced talents and makes a play to woo him over to his side. And while Meyers wrestles with this offer, he is entirely more enthusiastic about accepting a date with the beautiful and forthright young intern Molly (a scene-stealing Evan Rachel Wood).

Rounding out this dream cast is a messy-haired Marissa Tomei, playing a sassy New York Times reporter, Max Minghella as Meyers’ ambitious underling and a characteristically cool Jeffrey Wright as Senator Thompson, the man who has both sides vying for his campaign winning endorsement. Include Alexandre Desplat’s brilliantly brooding score and this is total Oscar-bait casting. Fortunately for Clooney, everyone brings their A-game.

Although, just as the film pivots around the comparison between Meyers’ youthful idealism and Zara and Duffy’s flabby, haggard cynicism, one can’t help but notice Gosling getting schooled by both Giamatti and Seymour Hoffman. It’s quite the sight to see, as these two character actor lions deliver pitch-perfect performances, with just the right amount of scenery chewing. But Gosling is gracious, and nevertheless manages to carry the film with impressive ease. Nuanced and intelligent, his performance is by no means all about the designer stubble and clenched jaw, though those two feature rather prominently.

Obvious too are some of Clooney’s allusions. The Governor’s ‘Believe’ campaign poster is straight out of the Obama/Shepard Fairey playbook, while Molly and Meyers’ potent nightcap is shot with a clear nod to Stephen Soderbergh’s sultry hotel bar scene in Out of Sight. More than anything though, The Ides of March has set tongues wagging about whether Clooney will one day throw his hat in the presidential ring (he says not).

It’s impossible to explain just how the film falters in the third act without venturing into spoiler territory. More useful then, is the notion of viewing The Ides of March as a film noir: broad, dramatic brushstrokes, a femme fatale, and a plummeting fall from grace. In fact, this really isn’t too long a bow to draw, as Clooney and his cinematographer Phedon Papamichael seem to do a stylistic bait and switch from the first two acts’ verisimilitude to the heavy shadows and noirish hallway that leads Meyers to his political showdown. But even these conventions can’t mask the frustratingly blatant psychological change Meyers undergoes in the final act. Clooney needed to dial him back a notch or three, for Gosling gets dangerously close to Drive territory in his transformation.

As a portrait of power, hubris and the systematic corruption of integrity, The Ides of March makes for compelling viewing. It’s well-crafted, wonderfully scored and solidly acted across the board. But, Mr. Clooney, beware calling your film The Ides of March if you don’t have an impeccable script, worthy of Shakespeare.

- Three stars
Published on TheVine
Australian release date: 24 November 2011

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