There’s an early scene in The Ides of March in which Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the press spokesman for a Democratic presidential candidate, confidently exclaims, “Nothing bad happens when you’re doing the right thing.” His virtuous statement not only highlights the wet-behind-the-ears naiveté of an idealistic young strategist, but it also sets up the dark, soulless path both he and the film will take.
Based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, the film is set in the store-front offices and hotel suites that stand in as the war room of presidential candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney), a governor running on a campaign of change and hope. Sound familiar? His young press secretary has drunk the Morris kool-aid and truly believes his boss can change the country for the better. But, as the campaign unfolds, so does a treacherous web of deceit, manipulation, and scandal. In the process we see that Meyers’ idealistic world-views of “right” and “bad” have no definition in the corrosive arena of American politics.
Meyers gets his first taste of politico hardball when he’s invited to meet secretly with rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who asks Meyers to flip and join his campaign -- the campaign that is set to win the key state of Ohio, gain the delegates of a key senator and eventually sweep into the white house. Also tempting Meyers is Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), a sexy young blonde intern whose indiscretions set in motion a dramatic and devastating series of events. Meyers is eventually left staring at a crumbling career jeopardized by shaky loyalties, inappropriate relationships, and a political scandal on the verge of erupting into a full-blown crisis.
Can he find a way to do what is right -- what is good -- or will he let the political system suck him in, chew his soul to pieces, then spit him out the other side?
With The Ides of March, Clooney -- who directs, co-writes, and stars in the film -- stamps his name in the cement alongside Hollywood’s all-time greatest actor/directors. Despite his character’s importance in the film, Clooney shares very little screen time with his co-stars. In fact, Gov. Morris is completely absent from the play. But Clooney’s assemblage of a top-notch cast with no fewer than three Academy Awards and six Golden Globes among them is where he makes his mark with Ides. Well, that and his Michael Mann-esque directorial skills.
Gosling steps expertly from his outsider turn in Drive. The Ides of March is clearly his picture, and he never disappoints in a role where his character makes several internal compromises that create a caustic environment in which his soul cannot exist. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Giamatti stand in perfectly as the grizzled, pot-bellied veteran campaign managers, chess masters really, each one step ahead of the other, and neither above bending the rules to level the playing field. Marisa Tomei portrays the punchy New York Times newspaper reporter, and Wood shines in her confident seductress skin.
Many will welcome the absence of Clooney’s well-documented political stance in The Ides of March. Then again, the film is not really a political movie with a distinct political message. You don’t have to know much about politics to become invested in the story. Nor does the film blame one political party over the other. But it does offer a scathing look at behind-the-scenes wheelings-and-dealings between members on both sides of the aisle that we never really get to see. And the script is remarkably relevant regarding many trends emerging in contemporary politics, even though it was finished more than three years ago. Political discussions these days are becoming more and more derisive, and less about common interest and more about self-interest. Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov capture this trend with chilling accuracy.
It must be fun working under Clooney, as he’s clearly an actor’s director. With such an intense and intricate story, it would have been easy for him to lose control of all the film’s many moving parts. But he clearly knows where to put the camera and how to step back and let talented actors seize their moments. As a result, the story within The Ides of March emerges as a perfectly baked examination of the seamier side of politics and one of the year’s most intensely chilling films.
(Released by Sony Pictures Entertainment and rated “R” for pervasive language and adult themes.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.