Friday, February 3, 2012

Ides of March

Ides of March (U.S., 2011) directed by George Clooney, 101 minutes
Nominated for one Oscar for:
Best Adapted Screenplay

Political intrigue. Back stabbing. Adultery. Retribution. Just another day in American politics you say?

If you recall the concept of the Ides of March from Roman history, according to Plutarch, Julius Cesar was warned by a seer who claimed that Caesar would be harmed by his enemies no later than the Ides of March (March 15th). As it turned out he was stabbed to death by the formerly loyal Brutus and his fellow Romans. This might give you a sense of the slight twist of plot at the end of this film.

Ides of March was directed and co-written by George Clooney. As someone noted on Twitter (under the hashtag #bitterlittleperson) when he was receiving yet another Golden Globe last month - is there nothing that Clooney doesn't have? Looks, talent, acclaim and an endless procession of nubile beauties ... well, add, decent directing chops to the list.

Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is press sec­retary to Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) who is heading into the Democratic primaries. On the surface Morris appears a principled man who won't cut deals with other candidates, negotiate secret deals with unions, refuses to identify with any particular religion to pander to his base and is devoted to his family.

His campaign posters (obviously modeled on the Obama "Change" posters of the 2008 election) lend him a noble cast and Clooney's good looks and suave, no nonsense manner don't hurt either. Morris is bathed in the kind of adoration and unabashed enthusiasm that many American politicians from JFK to Obama have experienced. His catchphrases are: "Dignity matters, integrity matters ..." that echo throughout the film. Cue the sinister music.

Stephen is a believer too until he gets enmeshed in two unsavory situations. Firstly, he starts sleeping with Molly Stearns (the always excellent Evan Rachel Wood), a 20 year old intern who, unbeknownst to him, is also sleeping with the Governor. Secondly, and more treacherously, he is invited to discuss the possibility of jumping ship and working with Tom Duffy (the ubiquitous acting eminence Paul Giamatti), head campaign manager for rival Democratic candidate Pullman.

This is merely a ruse to knock Stephen out of the game. Duffy knows that Stephen will speak to Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the Campaign Manager for Morris, who now begins to doubt Stephen's loyalty and eventually fires him. When Stephen tries to get a position with the rival camp he is told that they never wanted him in the first place, they just wanted him out of the picture. It's a clever bit of maneuvering on Duffy's part. Neither camp wants Myers now.

However, Myers has an ace up his sleeve and it has to do with Molly (I won't reveal more). Even though he cares for her he's not above using it to blackmail the Governor (and does) but on the way there is a great deal of human carnage that he must reconcile with. And it's quite soul destroying to view how easily he slips into being a cynical manipulator of people and their fates to achieve his aims.

But what can we say about Clooney as a director and an actor? He definitely recedes in the background as an actor giving Gosling most of the camera's attention. Even when Clooney is on screen, you see every wrinkle, every line on his handsome face. Wisely we never see the near 50 Clooney with the 20 year old Woods in the above aforementioned compromising situation. This would heighten the "ick" factor and there is is only so much reality Clooney idolaters can take possibly (including myself). It is also pleasantly surprising to see the lovely and underutilized Jennifer Ehle as the age appropriate wife of Governor Morris.

Clooney sometimes makes pedestrian choices as a director such as the image of the cascading rain over the car's windshield with the pensive Gosling within pondering his fate or the colossal American flag as background for the Morris campaign. These visually reference at least two other highly popular films (this scene in the film In Cold Blood and this in Patton). Pretty images but nonetheless cliche.

But I like how human, and devious, the golden boy Gosling turns out to be. He can't help charging ahead with his ambitions and plans of retribution even if the innocent (Molly Stearns and Paul Zara) and the not so innocent (Mike Morris) turn out to be causalities along the way.

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