Review: The Ides of March

 

There’s a funny thing about politics. Poly means many, and tics are, well, blood sucking creatures. In the annals of history, politics has essentially boiled down to one defining characteristic: how people use each other to achieve power. From the days of the Roman Empire, to the mind numbing relentlessness of contemporary campaigns in the United States, power has always been the chief concern and how people position themselves to gain power, regardless of the emotional cost. It makes sense, then, that George Clooney’s film of corruption and betrayal during the height of a presidential primary is aptly titled The Ides of March, referencing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

The film centers on the political campaign of Mike Morris (Clooney), a governor from Pennsylvania running for the presidency. He’s a confident, smart, and has a different perspective on America, much like another real life Democrat recently elected to the Oval Office. His campaign is run by Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his number one aide Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling). Their persuasive strategies could not be more different: Zara is the ruthless brawn, whereas Meyers provides the charismatic brains. A week prior to a critical primary in the state of Ohio, Meyers, the film’s central character, is confronted out of the blue by Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager for Morris’ Democratic opposition. Duffy posits that he thinks Meyers is working for the wrong man, and offers him to run their campaign instead. Thrust into a corner he can’t seem to get out of, Meyers turns down Duffy, only to discover that just his decision to meet with Duffy puts his entire political career on the line.

The unquestionable central strength of The Ides of March lies in its terrific ensemble, who provide a sense of palpable gravitas to all the proceedings. Of course, the cast is also working from a wonderfully written script, showing the ins and outs of the campaign and the powers of persuasion and seduction, without devoting too much time to all of the political mumbo jumbo. Gosling, who has been having a banner year, delivers another strong performance, throwing in natural charm for Meyers’ subtle persuasiveness, while also tapping into his darker side when things begin to spiral downhill. Despite his good intentions, one simple decision shapes the rest of Meyers’ career, and his character arc is effectively drawn by Gosling. As Meyer’s mentor, Paul Zara is played with calculation and brute strength by the ever-reliable Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Paul Giammatti is equally as devilish and sly playing the rival manager, Tom Duffy. The two key female performances in the film are also quite good, with Evan Rachel Wood playing a campaign intern involved with Meyers, and Marisa Tomei playing a New York Times columnist constantly trying to eek out every last detail about the nitty gritty of the campaign. Clooney’s work as Governor Morris is predictably solid as well, but it is his direction of the film that truly stands out.

Actors who direct can generally be relied upon for getting good performances from their actors, but whether those actors truly have a cinematic eye can be questionable. At first glance, The Ides of March may not seem to have an overly distinctive visual style, but a closer inspection reveals just how subtly cinematic Clooney’s eye really is. Clooney cites such classic political thrillers as All the President’s Men as inspiration for his film, and it certainly shows. The use of black and white in The Ides of March, for instance, carries great significance in revealing character. When Meyers tries calling Zara about a potential problem for the campaign, yet opts not to tell Zara the truth, he is simultaneously silhouetted and framed within a doorway. Silhouettes play a wonderful visual role in the film, hinting at characters’ hidden intentions and true motives. Even better are scenes in which some characters are only lit from one side, casting shadows on the other halves of their faces, showing their inner duplicities. In other cases, instead of resorting to editorial to maintain tension, Clooney instead chooses to hold on the shot, resulting in a longer take, such as when Wood’s intern slowly realizes what Meyers’ decision means for her. Yet another terrific visual focuses on Meyers sitting in a car later on in the film, coming to terms with everything that he has gone through thus far. As he begins to lose control of his emotions, the rain outside reflects on to his face.

Even though the themes of betrayal, power, and corruption are somewhat tired themes in the political arena, The Ides of March nevertheless maintains its contemporary relevance. Clooney might not be treading fresh ground, but his film still effectively shows that  no matter how hopeful a candidate can be about the prospects of a nation, that does not mean that the candidate can be brought down the level he yearns to transcend, nor is it impossible for a good soul to be brought down by careless mistakes. As a film, The Ides of March is another great step forward for Clooney as a director, showcasing his subtle, yet consistently effective cinematic arsenal, and featuring one of the best ensembles of the year.

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~ by romancinema on October 24, 2011.

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