@MovieJay’s Review of Ides of March

The Ides of March, George Clooney‘s fourth outing as a director, brings the Beau Willimon 2008 play “Farragut North” to the big screen with sharp performances and taut, classic Hollywood storytelling. Too bad the subject matter, stuff that would have been more relevant in the Clinton-era scandal-plagued late 90’s, doesn’t have the same sheen as every other facet of the film, but it’s a small inconvenience in a movie that provides real thrills and real honesty for it’s entire 98-minute running time.

The set-up: A week out from the highly contested Democratic primary of Ohio, Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) is the more liberal candidate running neck-in-neck with the more centrist candidate Senator Pullman, played by Michael Mantell. In a small but pivotal role, Jeffrey Wright plays Senator Thompson, a contender who is no longer in play to win the nomination but carries with him enough delegates to play kingmaker to either of the front-runners.

The Morris team’s campaign manager is Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), while the other side is headed by Paul Giamatti as Tom Duffy. Those characters alone could make an effective political drama, however the movie centers around Stephen Meyers, Morris’ campaign’s press secretary in a sharply-observed performance by Ryan Gosling that transforms this behind-the-scenes drama into a potboiler driven by tension generated from its characters and the way their chess-like political wars are played out.

Gosling plays Meyers as an idealist among cold-hearted realists who are all weary of the game of hardball politics they have been playing for far too long. He’s 30 years old, focused, concentrated, and almost always appears to be in-thought. It is through his interaction with a reporter, played with brash intelligence by Marisa Tomei, that he  has played an active role in more election cycles than most political activists a decade older which might explain the maturity.

Political campaigns are a grind, and the fallout from the stress of campaigns such as a presidential one like this is that staffers get close and sometimes sexual intimacy is understandable, even if it’s wrong. Enter Molly, played by the luminous Evan Rachel Wood, a young intern on the campaign, who gets herself noticed by Meyers in a scene that is deftly acted and teeming with furtive-eroticism in just the right moments as we say the intern flirt with and then picks up Meyers. They have important, time-consuming jobs, and the urgency of the sexual tension between them is palpable later on over drinks on a visit to the hotel where Molly is staying.Eventually this coupling leads to complications that rock the Morris campaign, but I will let you dear reader, discover those for yourself.

In a parallel narrative, Stephen is having to stave off Tomei’s reporter on a leak she’s picked up from an anonymous source that says he took an interview with the opposing side’s campaign, in a move that could indicate that the Morris campaign is losing. He did meet with Tom Duffy from the opposing side, but who told? Or is she making it up? Later, in the film’s best sequence, the “loyalty” scene, Stephen is taught the hardest of political lessons as he gets torn to shreds by Zara. Philip Seymour Hoffman is so good in this scene, it’s a toss-up between this role and his baseball manager of the A’s in last month’s Moneyball that’ll see him earn yet another well-deserved Oscar nomination. Paul Giamatti could be in line for another nomination as well, in a performance that mirrors Hoffman’s in it’s cold, hard precision.

What we know for sure is that nowadays it’s impossible for a presidential candidate to campaign that long and that hard and not come out of it with some form of exhaustion, but the greater point of the film is how it sees the compromises that are made by candidates and their campaigns and that it’s equally impossible for them to stay true to all of their values.

There are stronger films in this genre with similar subject matter, such as Mike Nichols’ wonderful Primary Colors built from events during the Clinton campaign for President, as well as The Contender just a few short years later focusing on Joan Allen’s past as she is nominated mid-term to the VeeP slot. Those were great films, that snapped, crackled and popped with the urgency of the topics of their day. Perhaps Ides of March would be more in league with those had it been made a decade ago, but it’s still a worthwhile exercise in league with the very good The Candidate, that early 70’s film with Robert Redford as a last-minute entry into the senatorial race in California, who upon his surprising come-from-behind victory can be heard to say, “What do we do now?”

George Clooney’s direction is flawless as usual. Along with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night & Good Luck, and the football comedy Leatherheads, he appears to have the same gift for efficient, economical storytelling that Clint Eastwood has mastered in the last act of his career. Both of them actors’ directors and in Ides of March the actors here turn this from a conventional film into an observant, tense and always honest one. Good movie.

*** out of 4