Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Ides of March Movie Review

The Ides of March, a political drama written and directed by George Clooney arrives just as many people in the country are beginning to wonder if President Obama is capable of sticking to the principals he lauded in his campaign or if he is no different than any other politician, making compromise after compromise for political expediency without regard for the values he claims to uphold. That the movie’s subject matter fits snugly into the current political landscape is a bit serendipitous, being based on a play originally produced before Barack Obama was elected to the Presidency.


This is not the first time Clooney has used his films as political tools. His Good Night, and Good Luck had as its subject matter the TV news journalist Edward R. Murrow’s attempt to rally the public around the cause of ousting Joseph McCarthy from the Senate. That film confronted an American public that needed to be prodded to ask questions of its government in the face of impending failures in two overseas wars.

Although both films are clarion calls for political action, The Ides of March has much more in common with Jeremy Larner and Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate. Both are about the compromises that have to be made throughout the political process if you want to 1) win a national election and 2) get anything done in office. At the center of The Ides of March is Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the junior campaign manager for Mike Morris (Clooney), Pennsylvania Governor and candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Meyers works for Morris because he’s a man of strong principals. He believes the Governor will not compromise his values to win an election.

This being a movie, we know that someone at some point is going to fail to live up to the promises of integrity. You can see the gears turning from the beginning: the campaign is in Ohio in a virtual must-win primary battle. Campaign manager Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is trying to harness the endorsement of a Senator who will get some 300 delegates to fall in line, locking up the primary battle before even heading to the next state. And to make things even more difficult for Stephen, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), their rival’s campaign manager, has called him into a private meeting to try to steal him away from the Morris campaign and work for him. That Stephen takes that meeting is what sets everything in motion.

It’s a testament perhaps to a combination of both Clooney’s own integrity as well as his track record as a filmmaker that he is able to score a cast of well-credentialed and talented actors. In addition to Hoffman, Giamatti and Gosling, he’s got Jeffrey Wright as the table-turning Senator, Marisa Tomei as a reporter hungry for a big story that could be Stephen’s downfall and Evan Rachel Wood as Molly, a young campaign intern who easily seduces Stephen one night after hours. Rather unfortunately, the screenplay by Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon (based on his play Farragut North) takes what could otherwise be a really interesting character played by the truly gifted Wood and turn her into a pawn in a male power play. Her fate in the film is of questionable value and credibility. It involves a choice Molly makes, the explanation for which is not adequately provided for in the screenplay. It’s a cheap contrivance designed to shift the movie into its third act, a move unbecoming for the writing team that gave us Good Night, and Good Luck.

SOME MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD

In The Ides of March we have a uniformly well-made film, targeted at grownups (a type of moviemaking rarely seen these days). The dialogue is top-notch even if the plot falters. The ensemble acting is about as good as it gets and Clooney is becoming more and more self-assured as a director with each outing. But something about the movie left me cold and unmoved. This is ostensibly meant to be a kind of political call to arms or a wake-up call. But the big revelation is that everyone in politics is corrupt and everyone is corruptible when pushed to the brink. This hardly strikes me as particularly ground-breaking, revelatory or even remotely interesting. Somewhere in this story is a very good movie waiting to break out, but Clooney and his collaborators didn’t quite dig it out.

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