Ryan Gosling as a brilliant and ambitious campaign aide in a world of trouble with the aptly reversed poster for his too good to be true Presidential candidate in the political thriller, The Ides of March.
Have you noticed how often George Clooney plays weak men.
I don’t mean men who are morally or ethically hobbled by flaws and frailties, although he has played that, notably in Michael Clayton. I mean men (and it one case a fox) who aren’t physically, emotionally, or intellectually up to the task the movie presents them with. In some movies, like Out of Sight and Three Kings and Fantastic Mr Fox, despite his flaws, he’s only relatively weak, outnumbered and outgunned and at least at one crucial point outwitted by his antagonists, and the question is how will he rise to the challenge and turn the tables? But in Solaris, Syriana, The Perfect Storm, and The Good German he is simply overwhelmed by circumstances or forces that he hasn’t the strength to resist let alone defeat. And Clooney is good at showing the limits of his characters’ talents, abilities, and intelligence---he can play dumb and he can play smart but not smart enough. The Coen Brothers have had fun using this to get laughs in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty, and Burn After Reading. In short he rarely plays heroes. He plays ordinary men who need to be heroic and either they manage it or they don’t.
In The Ides of March, Clooney, directing himself, exploits his own film persona to put us on guard against his character from the start. As Democratic Presidential candidate, Mike Morris, he plays a liberal’s dream candidate but we know as soon as we meet him Morris is too good to be true. (It doesn’t help our opinion of him that his campaign posters evoke Barack Obama’s from 2008. As a white Obama, Morris looks like a pretender.) It’s not clear exactly how, but we can see he’s not up to snuff. There’s an essential weakness in him---there must be, he’s played by George Clooney, and as I said Clooney is good at showing there are limits to his characters’ strengths and virtues---what we have to wait to find out is what that weakness is, how and when it will reveal itself, and in what direction it will drive the plot.
Morris is not the main character and Clooney is not the star of The Ides of March. Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Meyers, Morris’ brilliant and ambitious deputy campaign manager. The title alludes to Shakespeare’s play but while Morris is clearly no Caesar, Meyers is just as clearly no Brutus---that is no one is going to praise him as the noblest campaign aide of them all. He might be as devoted to Morris as Marc Antony was to his leader, but then again he has Cassius’ lean and hungry look. So, is he patriot, loyalist, or traitor? We can’t tell. We just know there’s something a little off, some weakness that will reveal itself and drive the plot one way or another. He’s too tough to be that tough, too savvy to really know the score, too jaded not to be either a hopeless romantic in disguise, a naif, or a fool, although maybe he’s just exhausted. We know from real life that men and women with Stephen’s job have almost no down town. They don’t sleep, don’t eat right, don’t sit down or stay put in one city or state for long, and have almost no moments alone. It might be that Stephen is just not physically or emotionally up to the job.
Gosling plays it close to the vest, giving nothing away. It’s not a deadpan performance, but very often his face will go completely dead, and we can’t tell if he’s just put on a mask, if he’s been caught off guard and is giving himself time to think, if he’s just too tired to react, or if it’s his soul that has died and he’s forgotten he needs to keep that fact hidden.
And then while we’re waiting, before we have a chance to even begin to figure him out, Stephen makes two big mistakes, both out of ordinary, minor, and forgivable weaknesses, vanity and curiosity. And now the suspense is in wondering whether this mistake or that one or both will be his undoing, and we forget to care whether he is good or bad, flawed and broken. He’s just a guy in a world of trouble, outnumbered and outgunned, as it were, relatively weak in not being as smart or as quick as he needs to be to outwit the bad guys.
The story unfolds during the last frenzied days leading up to the Ohio primary. The race is down to two. Morris is ahead in the polls, but it’s close. If he wins, though, he’ll have the nomination locked up and after that his path to the Presidency is pretty much clear. And here Clooney, who co-wrote the screenplay with Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, further undermines his own character. Morris’ senior campaign manager, Stephen’s immediate boss, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is confident Morris will get to the White House, but not because he believes his guy is a terrific candidate and a good guy and that voters will recognize his potential greatness, although he does believe all that. It’s just that it’s a good year for a Democrat to run for President. The Republicans don’t have a real candidate, they’re confused, disorganized, and turning on each other. “They’re acting like Democrats,” Zara says without irony. Still, Morris has to win Ohio first and with the race tightening, Zara knows only one way to make sure of that.
Morris needs the endorsement and with it the delegates of another Democrat, a Senator from North Carolina, who’s recently dropped out of the race. The trouble is that in exchange the Senator wants something, something big.
The sharp and witty script, based on Willimon’s play Farragut North but expertly opened up and stripped of any residual staginess, gives us very little in the way of exposition. We don’t have enough background on the characters to know what kind of people they really are. We have to make guesses based what they do as the go along, making it nearly impossible for us to know at crucial moments who’s good, who’s bad, and whom we can trust.
The exception would appear to be Zara.
Hoffman has a gift for disappearing into a role. A while back I watched Capote, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Savages, and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead practically back to back and by the end of The Devil Knows You’re Dead you could have convinced me that those movies had starred four different actors. Here, Hoffman disappears into the part by not disappearing. He makes Zara into a guy who happens to look, talk, and shamble about like Philip Seymour Hoffman, which is just to say a smart, practical minded, hardworking middle-aged pro with a justified confidence in own talents but without much pretense or vanity. Here, we think, is somebody who is what he appears to be. Then, in one of Hoffman’s best scenes, Zara delivers a speech on loyalty that is so self-flattering and self-serving that we thrown back in our seats. Damn, we think, another one who’s too good to be true.
Gosling and Clooney carry the movie, but they get big help from Hoffman and other members of the supporting cast.
Paul Giamatti grins and snarls, wheedles and snaps (and looks) like a bearded snapping turtle as the campaign manager for Morris’ opponent and Zara’s career-long rival. Marisa Tomei smiles mischievously out from behind a pair of big black-framed glasses, looking like a Lois Lane who has swiped Clark’s specs and is daring him to try to take them back. Jeffrey Wright plays the Senator who wants to trade his endorsement for the right offer with a mixture of pomposity and guile. And Evan Rachel Wood steals the show as an intern with the campaign who is a little too worldly and cynical for a twenty year old and a little too innocent for the flirt and seductress she wants Stephen to take her for.
Clooney continues to grow as a director. The Ides of March has the same methodical pacing as Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck, but it works here and his eye, which has always been good, has gotten better. One thing I liked was the way he was able to keep the busyness of Morris’ campaign headquarters in the frame without letting the scenes get too…busy. And I got a real kick out of one shot in a scene in which Morris and his wife (Jennifer Ehle) snuggle in the backseat of the car bringing them home from another exhausting campaign event. Ehle has her head on Clooney’s shoulder, he’s resting his cheek on the top of her head, but the shot is framed so that while we see all of Ehle’s happy and contented face, we see only Clooney’s mouth and a piece of his jaw and we realize with a shock that Clooney has a grin like a cartoon wolf’s. It’s the work of an actor with an admirable lack of respect for his own vanity.
Although The Ides of March is set during a political campaign, it’s not really about politics. Not surprising. There have been many good movies about politicians, but very few about politics, which is the art of winning votes, getting laws passed, and wheeling and dealing and trading horses in order to do the people’s business. Primary Colors, The Last Hurrah, The Candidate, and Advise and Consent are about politics. Voters, and the People, don’t figure in The Ides of March, any more than they figure in All the King’s Men, The Best Man, The Contender, The American President, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, and Mr Smith Goes to Washington, films that like The Ides of March are character studies of men and women who happen to be politicians or caught up in a politician’s life and are tempted or threatened by the power of political office. The Ides of March might be re-titled Will Mr Meyers Get to Go to Washington?
But The Ides of March might be better appreciated as a workplace thriller. In a workplace thriller the characters can be lawyers, doctors, cops, spies, bankers, journalists, even professional criminals, anybody with access to knowledge they shouldn’t have and facing temptations or threats that arise from possessing that knowledge. What the heroes and heroines do for a living doesn’t matter except in how it gets them into trouble and the point is to watch them trying to get out of that trouble. The Ides of March is nowhere near as melodramatic as movies like The Firm, Coma, Call Northside 777, or The Departed. But what Stephen does for a living doesn’t matter as much as that it’s gotten him into deep trouble with people stronger, smarter, and more ruthless than he is. He’s outnumbered and outgunned and the question is apolitical: will he get out of it? The difference is that livelihoods more than lives are at stake and the suspense and horror come not from waiting for the bodies to fall but in watching souls curdle.
Previous movie review from The Mannionville Daily Gazette: Did your mother come from Ireland and did she deal cocaine? My review of The Guard starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle.
Related Mannion Re-run from 2006: My review of Good Night, and Good Luck.