The Ides of March is the latest entry into the genre of political dramas. Often these pictures reflect the times in which they were made: the corrupted populism of the original All The King’s Men, the optimism of the early 1960’s in The Best Man, and the David vs. Goliath battle for truth in All the President’s Men. One of the best examples is another movie starring Robert Redford, Michael Ritchie’s 1972 movie, The Candidate. It was prescient in its story line of handlers taking over the candidate and completely compromising his position on issues, all in the name of winning. With The Ides of March, the focus is on the handlers.
The movie begins with Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) stepping to a podium and being bathed in white light. He begins speaking and it sounds like a political speech, though it’s delivered flatly, without any passion. Then other lights come up and reveal that he’s doing a sound check for a debate later that evening.
It’s a few days before the Ohio Presidential Primary and the Democratic race has come down to two men: Governor Mike Morris of Pennsylvania (George Clooney) and Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell). Pullman’s campaign is being managed by Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) while Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) handles the Morris campaign, with Stephen as his assistant. In an interview with NY Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), Zara explains he was hired to get Morris elected, but Stephen is there because he believes in the candidate.
While dealing with all the details of the campaign, Stephen finds himself attracted to an intern, Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), whose father is the head of the Democratic Committee. Zara takes a trip to South Carolina to pursue Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), a former candidate who holds enough delegates that his endorsement would secure the nomination. While Zara’s away, Stephen receives an overture from Duffy to jump to the Pullman campaign, and he learns a secret that could completely change the race. As the hours tick down to the primary vote, Stephen finds himself swept up in a political ploy that could destroy him.
This has been a very good year for Ryan Gosling, completing a trifecta of fine performances that began with Crazy, Stupid Love and continued with The Driver. He’s convincing as a true believer at the beginning of the film and you understand as his character changes during the storyline’s arc. The final shot, in contrast to the opening, is one of those moments that illuminates the whole movie.
It’s a pleasure to see Giamatti and Hoffman sparring during the movie. While their characters are mirror images, the shading they communicate defines each clearly. Marisa Tomei is also having a good year, after appearing in The Lincoln Lawyer and with her memorable comedic turn in Crazy, Stupid Love. One small supporting performance I was intrigued by was Gregory Itzen as Jack Stearns. After his years portraying the sleazy President Charles Logan on “24” it was nice to see him in a sympathetic role. Particularly impressive is Evan Rachel Wood, whose character is the emotional heart of the piece. After her powerful, raw performance in Thirteen eight years ago, she was often cast in a daughter role, though she did it memorably in The Wrestler and HBO’s adaptation of “Mildred Pierce.” Now she has graduated to mature, adult roles.
George Clooney is a hyphenate performer following the path of Clint Eastwood. Along with playing Governor Morris, he is the film’s producer and director, and he co-wrote the screenplay with his long-time collaborator Grant Heslov (Goodnight and Good Luck) and Beau Willimon, whose play “Faragut North” is the basis for the movie. While movies adapted from plays can often feel stage-bound, Clooney does an admirable job opening up the source material to fit a movie. Clooney specifically had a Democratic candidate as the film’s focus to preempt any charges that he was using the movie as a soapbox to attack Republicans. Instead the story transcends party politics to cast a jaundiced eye at the state of politics as a whole. As a performer, Clooney is mesmerizing as Morris, especially when he repeats the words we heard Gosling speak at the opening of the movie, delivering them with a fervor that would make you want to vote for him, whatever he’s running for. Clooney the director, though, keeps Clooney the actor properly integrated into the movie in what is in effect a supporting role.
With the 2012 election on the horizon, as well as the partisan divide in the government these days, The Ides of March is a topical picture with a message. The message is not a reassuring one, but it is delivered in a riveting package – a cerebral thriller, and one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.