Ides of March, The (United States, 2011)October 03, 2011
"Et tu, Brute?"
The Ides of March illustrates the universally acknowledged truism that nothing can corrupt idealism more completely than politics. The sad thing about this American tragedy is that not a single twist, turn, or betrayal is difficult to accept. There's no "willing suspension of disbelief" hurdle to clear. The sense of verisimilitude is such that, if not for the intimacy of the shots, it could easily be a documentary. The backroom deals and dirty tricks represent politics as they are, not as they should be. This is a deeply cynical movie and, in that cynicism, it finds truth.
The title, with its allusion to the day on which Julius Caesar was assassinated, brings to mind Shakespeare; the literate screenplay is the sort of thing the Bard might have appreciated. There's also a more prosaic reason for the name. The "Ides of March" refers to a specific date, March 15, which is the pivotal day upon which the events of the film focus. In this reality, March 15 is the date of the Ohio Primary, when Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) hopes to vanquish his opponent and claim the Democratic nomination for President.
Helping him pursue this goal are his campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his chief strategist, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling). Stephen is a rising star, and his talents are coveted by his opponent's head flack, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). But it's not all about winning the Ohio contest. Obtaining the endorsement of Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), a primary drop-out with more than 300 pledged delegates, could put Morris in a unassailable position or drop him behind Senator Pullman if Thompson leans in that direction. The endorsement comes with a price - Secretary of State - that Pullman appears willing to pay while Morris is not. Then, through a late-night call received by the pretty intern who's sharing his bed (Evan Rachel Wood), Stephen learns an ugly secret.
Clooney, who co-wrote the screenplay (from Beau Willimon's off-Broadway play, Farragut North) and directed, shares the same dismal view of the political process as many Americans. Although the character's agenda is progressive/liberal, this is more about what it takes to achieve power than it is about the candidate's platform. Although not an original point, Clooney illustrates that, when it comes to the mechanisms by which a campaign is run, there's little difference between Republicans and Democrats. Politics is a game - a dirty, soul-sucking game in which even winners often lose. Promises are the game's currency, used to snag votes and conveniently ignored once the election is over. Clooney is not some wide-eyed optimist; the sense of disillusionment runs deep.
Technically, The Ides of March is a thriller, albeit one without a single moment that could be considered an "action scene." In fact, the first half of the movie offers a straightforward peek behind the curtain of Morris' campaign, not unlike what was shown in The War Room, Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker's documentary about the 1992 election. The characters, their concerns, and their relationships are developed during this segment so that when the backstabbing begins and the tension mounts, we understand the implications. Because typical thriller devices are not employed, there's a refreshing sense of uncertainty about the eventual end-point of the narrative. That resolution is determined through power plays and stratagems, not shoot-outs and crossfire.
The weight of talent on display in The Ides of March is astonishing. The six principal members of the cast - Gosling, Clooney, Hoffman, Giamatti, Tomei, and Wood - have a combined eleven acting Oscar nominations and three wins (with only Wood not having any). Secondary roles are filled by some of the best working character actors, including Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Ehle (as Morris' wife). The high level of acting is a testimony not only to the quality of the production but to how well-liked and respected Clooney is within Hollywood circles.
As the star, Gosling has the best developed character, the one who traverses the most complete arc. Stephen's trail is a complex spiral into dark places and is in keeping with some of his recent nihilistic efforts (Drive comes to mind). He is surrounded by a group of colorful supporting performers, all of whom ably fulfill their functions - Clooney as the suave, sincere, Presidential-looking politician; Hoffman as the rumpled, no-nonsense veteran with "more balls than brains" and who prizes loyalty above all else; Giamatti as the Machiavellian enemy who has lost most of his humanity along the way; Tomei as the pushy newspaper reporter whose definition of a "friend" is someone who gives her a story; and Wood as the young woman whose idealism may be a cover for something else. The rich tapestry of finely acted characters enhances a compelling tale.
The Ides of March is one of the most honest mainstream movies about American politics ever to be committed to the screen. It's the anti-Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the repudiation of everything Frank Capra preached in that idealistic classic. Most of what The Ides of March says will not surprise anyone - we have become increasingly jaded with every post-Watergate election cycle - but the fact that a skilled, prominent filmmaker like Clooney has invested himself in this condemnation of the political process is unexpected. For all of the seeming "liberal" elements (MSNBC, for example, provides the faux news coverage), the message turns out to be party-neutral. It is intended as a wake-up call. As the screen fades to black at the end, we're left wondering whether the "winning" characters actually won and what it means in the real world when fictions like this are merely imperfect reflections of what's actually going on.
Ides of March, The (United States, 2011)
Cast: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Even Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Ehle, Max Minghella
Screenplay: George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, based on Willimon's play Farragut North
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Music: Alexandre Desplat
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures