October 9, 2011

The Ides Of March (10/09/2011)

Lettergrade: B+

In The Ides Of March, Ryan Gosling is a young campaign manager working for an inspiring "change candidate" who is this close to clinching the Democratic nomination for President. A victory in this coming week's Ohio primary would just about seal it.

George Clooney co-wrote and directed the movie (based on Beau Willimon's Broadway play "Farragut North"), and he also appears as "the candidate," although he spends much of the movie on the sidelines or appearing on TV shows while Gosling and campaign chief Philip Seymour Hoffman attend to the dirty work of trying to secure key voting blocks.

The picture details a lot of the mania, paranoia, treachery, back-room dealing, and general ugliness that comes with working in politics, but there's a greater sentiment at work here that's as powerful as it is disheartening: Mainly that even when there's a promising candidate on the scene who says all the right things, takes all the right positions, and seems to be the breath of fresh air that voters have been waiting for, behind the scenes it's the often the same ugly sausage factory that produces all of our other elected officials.

While in the theater, I couldn't help but read the film as an expression of disappointment in the Obama administration. That may be, but later I read that Willimon drew inspiration from the Howard Dean campaign's 2004 melt-down in New Hampshire when writing his play. The stage version was set there too, but Clooney moved the story to Ohio instead and smartly plays things neutral enough that you never get the sense that he's directly alluding to any specific public figure (although his campaign poster does look an awful lot like the famous Obama "Change" poster).

Gosling, the campaign's #2 guy, is fantastic in the movie, as he has been in a lot of movies lately. There's some wonderful ensemble work here too from Paul Giamatti as a rival campaign operative, Marisa Tomei as a ruthless reporter, and Evan Rachel Wood as a zealous intern.

I really enjoyed the political stuff, but the film's second half gets into a fairly melodramatic storyline involving Wood that I felt kinda took away from the power of the film's jabs at our nation's political process. Much of the movie is a conflict between the ideals of this campaign and the temptation to make big concessions for the sake of winning... a theme that plays out in most of the character's personal decisions as much as it does in the greater primary battle itself. The Wood storyline almost feels like a distraction from that... it's juicy and intriguing, but this is a movie that seems to be trying to get at something more important than the usual political scandal stuff.

It's Clooney's fourth film as a director, and I think it's the one that shows the most skill behind the camera as well. I really admired what 2002's Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind and especially 2005's Good Night, And Good Luck were about, but I didn't necessarily feel that either flowed well or really took off as entirely engaging cinema. His third picture, 2008's Leatherheads, was a noble attempt at a Preston Sturges style screwball comedy that didn't work for me at all, frankly.

The Ides Of March functions significantly better as both a political ax-grinder and as a strong drama. I would imagine that the subject material is a little dry for the film to ever become terribly popular with the masses or a huge financial hit (or to even get much awards attention, outside of acting), but I continually respect that Clooney is a guy with a ton of star-power (and therefore clout) who often chooses to make movies about things he's interested in, rather than ones that are likely to make a ton of money.

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