Movie review by Greg Carlson
George Clooney explores his interest in the messy, complex, and bruising competition of American political theatre in “The Ides of March,” a somber reiteration of the ancient rhymes encapsulated in the movie’s tagline: “Ambition seduces. Power corrupts.” One of Hollywood’s most outspoken liberals, director Clooney casts himself as Mike Morris, a sitting Pennsylvania governor and contender for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in a tightly contested Ohio primary. Despite his infectious idealism, accompanied by Shepard Fairey-styled iconography and polished public speaking skills, Morris is doomed to disappoint junior campaign manager Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), a young staffer whose hero worship will be tested to its limits.
As Myers, Ryan Gosling continues his successful operation to devour plum roles, and the compelling actor, already Oscar-nominated for his performance in “Half Nelson” in 2006, is surrounded here by several Academy Award winners whose ranks he will someday likely join. As dictated by the genre, Myers initially embodies an unsustainable, trusting earnestness that will be supplanted by jaded, cynical, and cutthroat maneuvering, and one of the strengths of “The Ides of March” lies in the pleasure of watching Gosling’s character lose his religion right before your eyes. Gosling receives gifts of support from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Wood.
Adapted by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon from Willimon’s 2008 play “Farragut North,” “The Ides of March” will no doubt be carefully parsed for any possible resemblance to current campaigns and figures, as well as the upcoming presidential race, but the drama most effectively addresses the universally recognizable strain of secrets and lies on one’s moral equilibrium. Reinforcing the old axiom/oxymoron concerning honest politicians, “The Ides of March” echoes its original stage incarnation especially in terms of the sheer amount of scenes in which a powerful man engages a less powerful man in pregnant and portentous dialogue.
Citing Preston Sturges’ “The Great McGinty,” Anthony Lane implies that historically speaking, comedy beats drama when it comes to the presentation of “convincing political conduct.” “The Ides of March” is short on any humor that lies outside of withering insults and sarcastic retorts, but in a rare flash of levity, Clooney does make time for a wry sex scene in which Myers cannot shift his attention away from Governor Morris on TV to pay attention to the flesh and blood partner in his arms. Any expression of Myers’ carnal desire for his boss, however, is downplayed in favor of the more traditional, straight, power-imbalanced, intern sex scandal.
In his fourth feature as director, Clooney continues to show a flair for rhythm and respect for his cast. “The Ides of March” benefits from Phedon Papamichael’s lovely cinematography and Stephen Mirrione’s editing, but Clooney appears to recognize the limits of the familiar tale being told, and smartly refocuses viewer attention on the micro, interpersonal level. While a few of Governor Morris’ beliefs are illuminated – his bold secularism is among the more intriguing admissions and is the kind of thing that could only exist in a fantasized, alternate reality America – most of the ideas are shrouded in fog.