Review: The Ides of March (2011)

This review was originally published on Capital New York.

American politics can be a dirty business. For whom is this a surprise? So-called upright men who declare themselves our leaders have been found in all kinds of compromising undignified positions, especially in a 24-hour news cycle world. We’ve all seen Bill Clinton wagging his finger at us and Gary Hart shaking his maracas at us. We’ve witnessed the downfall of John Edwards, and of various Senators and Congressmen throughout the land, caught with wide stances in airport bathrooms, and etc. Sex is a dark force (and/or farce) and politicians are subject to many temptations.

The Ides of March, George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, belongs to an earlier less knowing era, an era when the public would still be capable of being shocked and saddened by such revelations. I have rarely felt more cynical watching a recent film. The Ides of March, as its title suggests, wants to be more than the story of a corrupt Presidential candidate. It wants to be a cry of pain for a 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, not really. The Ides of March is a mild-toned well-acted yet strangely muffled story of an ideologically fervent staffer who realizes the man he works for, and reveres, is not perfect.

In this day and age, it is difficult to invest (or even believe) in such naivete.

George Clooney plays Mike Morris, governor of Pennsylvania, gearing up for the Ohio Democratic Party Debate, seeking his party’s nomination for President. 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 microphone before the debate, and through his directives (“Make sure these podiums are raised, the Governor has to see his notes, okay?”) it’s clear he is high in the chain of command. Although he looks young, he informs a fellow staffer he has worked on more campaigns than he can count.

Stephen doesn’t just “work for” Governor Morris. He is a True Believer. Not only will Governor Morris win, “he must win,” says Meyers. This is not just a matter of politics as usual, for Stephen Meyers, but an ideological battle for the soul of America.

No party affiliation is mentioned, but Governor Morris’ talking points, heard in campaign speeches seem to be progressive ones, involving developing energy sources in order to remove our dependency on Saudi Arabia. Morris 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. Governor Morris is part of the political process, and certainly the emotional center of his huge staff, but also somewhat above it. We all know how well that worked for Jimmy Carter. Morris tells the voters, “If you think I lack experience, don’t vote for me.” Does he mean this? If so, then he is unlike any politician in history. However, The Ides of March isn’t about compromises made on the campaign trail. The film isn’t about Governor Morris at all. It’s about how Stephen Meyers’ belief system shatters.

Stephen’s boss is Paul Zara (played with cold-eyed clarity by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a counterpoint to his role as the beleaguered and resentful Oakland A’s General Manager in Moneyball). Paul has no time for ideological fervor. He’s a realist. The scenes between Gosling and Hoffman spark and sizzle, especially in the midst of the almost dead air dominating the film for its first half-hour.

Things get even more interesting when Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), a New York Times reporter covering the campaign, enters the scene, trying to get the inside scoop from Meyers and Zara. Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) is Paul Zara’s counterpart in the opposing campaign, and he tries to poach Stephen Meyers away from the Morris campaign. This move will have vast repercussions for Meyers personally. Giamatti and Hoffman are the two gritty pillars of political reality, with Gosling caught in the middle. Stephen, unbelievably, thinks the whole point of politics is to believe in something.

Of course there must be a romance, and Stephen falls for a pretty intern (Evan Rachel Wood), whose father also happens to be the head of the DNC. She’s got a terrible secret, which she eventually unloads on Stephen because she needs help. “I’m in trouble,” she tells him. Meyers has to do some damage control, which shocks and troubles him. This makes no sense. If you’ve worked on “more campaigns than you can count”, then “damage control” should come as no surprise. It’s not just “part of” the job. It is the job.

One of Clooney’s strengths as a director is his willingness to move his own vast celebrity as an actor out of the way, and let his ensemble shine. His projects are personal, but they are not vanity projects. You can see it 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, Giamatti and Gosling, Gosling and Tomei, are riveting. van Rachel Wood can be heartbreaking and she is here as well. In his performance as Governor Morris, Clooney remains the center of the film and yet strangely absent for most of 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, then I, as an American who watches the news and is well-informed, already know he is not perfect and that he has a skeleton in his closet, just waiting to come tumbling out. The unfolding of the story, then, has almost no tension. It is not clear what we are supposed to take from all of this. In the cynical and paranoid 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. Vietnam, Watergate, all were eye-openers. Institutions are corrupt, the Emperor has no clothes, who can we believe anymore, who can we trust? The anguish of those questions is felt in those films in a palpable way. The Ides of March lacks anguish, urgency, stakes.

Clooney plays Governor Morris as a passionate and smooth guy, comfortable in the limelight, and equally comfortable duking 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. He is always entertaining to watch.

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 powerful in its vast stretches of silence opening up, the silence of uncomfortable truth entering the room. Gosling is good at playing complex characters. He suggests multitudinous layers of thought and feeling. He’s always thinking more than he’s saying. At one point, he says to Ida, “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 that it may be true. But it’s not altogether clear, not from the fascinating and somewhat remote way Gosling plays it. You suddenly feel this guy’s loneliness.

Shot beautifully by Phedon Papamichael, The Ides of March is dark and lush, suggesting the almost completely indoor and nocturnal world in which political people live. 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 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, so the showy shots stand out, unbalancing to the whole. These shots vibrate with meaning. But what, exactly, is the meaning?

The battle for the “soul” of America has been front and center for the last couple of tumultuous years, with the rise of the Tea Party movement, and the equal rise of the Occupy Wall Street protests. Partisan-based news organizations throw their considerable weight behind the side they endorse, and any subtlety in the message is lost entirely. Those who struggle to stay somewhat in the center find themselves lost, scorned by both sides. This has always been true. One of the first infighting scandals in American politics was a leaked note of Thomas Jefferson referring to “political heresies among us”, a clear reference to the burgeoning argument he was having with John Adams. That one comment (said in private, but leaked) led to the rupture between Jefferson and Adams that lasted for many years before a reconciliation in the twilight of their lives. Adams was insulted that disagreement could not somehow be incorporated into the political process. “Heresies” was a word that should not be used in politics at all. That way tyranny lies.

Such questions now seem naive. But watching The Ides of March, and watching Ryan Gosling’s dawning sense of betrayal, I felt it was all his own fault for believing so strongly in the first place.

It’s not just the corrupt politicians we should fear. We need to keep a close eye on the True Believers, too.

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