The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011)

15Nov11

Ryan Gosling (Stephen Meyers), George Clooney (Mike Morris), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Paul Zara), Marisa Tomei (Ida Horowicz), Evan Rachel Wood (Molly Stearns), Paul Giamatti (Duffy). Screenplay by George Clooney et al. Directed by George Clooney. Rating: 15. Running time: 101 minutes.

I promised myself I wouldn’t use this oh so obvious word, but I’m finding it hard to resist following everyone else in describing The Ides of March as Machiavellian. It may have become a cliché to describe any film involving dirty political tactics in this way, but there’s still no better word for summing up the feeling that what we see is a story where the ends are certainly said to justify the means, and those means may be just about anything.

It doesn’t start off this way. If anything, for the first half an hour you’d expect the film to be a discreet homage to the euphoria of 2008, when we were all swept off our feet by Obama for the first time, and any cynicism surrounding politics seemingly evaporated overnight. The same aura of optimism dominates the portrayal of the candidacy of Mike Morris here, but soon enough the darker side of electioneering comes to the forefront, and idealism is replaced by, if not strictly immoralism, at least some ethically dubious techniques and behaviour to say the least.

Morris is played, of course, by Clooney, but his part turns out to be minor. We see him mostly on stage delivering polished soundbites, and whilst he wears the role of middle-aged governor well, it’s evidently never meant as anything more than a safe, standard performance. The focus is instead on Gosling, starring in his third film released in fewer months. If the role were smaller he would have Best Supporting Actor wrapped up, but he ends up being the unquestioned lead. I don’t think there’s quite enough here for him to bag that honour, but it’s another solid performance warranting another rise in his reputation.

He’s helped by the fact he plays such a brilliantly cryptic character. Stephen Meyers in Morris’ junior strategist, and whilst starting off drunk on the politics of hope like everyone else, The Ides of March ends up being his rude awakening. The film is, primarily, a tale of his loss of innocence; the learning of the lesson that if you stay clean in a world of dirt, you’ll quickly be trounced upon, and so the only way to stay at the top is to stoop to their level.

His situation changes so drastically and rapidly that it’s easy to lose sight of his motives. We get clues, but it’s never obvious if and when he’s thinking first and foremost of his own interest, or his candidate’s or his country’s. In the end the likelihood is there’s an alignment, but what started off as undoubtedly being primarily about his nation, evolves into an egoism of sorts.

This is where the juice is. Not in the aesthetic, which is slick, professional – everything you’d expect, but hardly groundbreaking. Nor in the acting, despite a high standard being maintained throughout. The satisfaction lies in tracking Stephen’s thoughts, and experiencing twists and events unfold out of nowhere just as he does. When the film’s scandal starts rolling and the fireworks fly, the momentum at which the action seems to unfold and its gravity is quite something. And as it unfolds, we’re reminded that we’re seeing a world that is clearly real, but it’s also a world we’d probably prefer not to know about. There will be better, more innovative films to reach cinemas between now and the Oscars 2012, but this is solid stuff, sure to deservedly grab a handful of major nominations. First among which will be Ryan Gosling.

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