Ides of March, The (2011): Clooney’s Cautionary Tale, Starring Himself, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman

George Clooney makes a step forward as the director and co-writer of “The Ides of March,” a timely, well executed political-paranoia thriller and a classic Faustian morality tale, which is impressive on several levels.

“Ides of March” is a cautionary morality tale about the fabric of our political reality, the way we live and conduct ourselves in private and in public, and the compromises we are forced to make–despite our better natures. To be great, the movie should have been more complex, more multi-nuanced, and less cynical. And though most of its ideas may be familiar to politically savvy viewers, it’s worth hearing them again, not to mention the seductive way in which they are told, which gives pure movie pleasure.

World-premiering at the Venice Film Fest, as opening night selection (in competition), “The Ides of March” plays Toronto Film Fest next week.  Sony will release this high-profile film, which boasts one of the best ensembles this year: Gosling, Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright.

George Clooney and his co-writers, partner Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, have effectively adapted to the big screen Willimon’s stage play, “Farragut North.” Unlike most movies based on theatrical productions, “Ides of March” does not betray its theatrical origins and feels like a “real” movie, in large part due to the strategy taken by Clooney the director, and also the support elicited from its superlative technical crew.

Overall, “The Ides of March” is a better, more significant picture than Clooney’s 2005 Oscar-nominated “Good Night, and Good Luck,” whose scope was after all more limited, as well as “Michael Clayton,” in which Clooney starred in an Oscar-nominated performance, and to which “Ides of March” bears some resemblance.

Sony, which picked the film for distribution last November, should expect wide critical acclaim from reviewers, but commercially speaking, “Ides of March” is a mid-range performer, due to its serious subject matter and cynical and ironic tone.  Though realistic and liberal (wearing its political convictions on its sleeves), the film is ultimately a downer.  (Is there any other way these days to make a good, candid political movie?).

In time, this 1970s-like movie should assume a place in the company of such great American political melodramas as “The Candidate,” “All the President’s Men,” and others–like them, it’s effective as a character and plot-driven (a tricky balance to maintain).  It may not be a coincidence that the best political thrillers of the 1970s starred Robert Redford who, like Clooney, was known for his liberal politics off screen.

A Faustian morality tale, “The Ides of March” is defined by some crucial dichotomies of values: loyalty versus ambition, idealism versus corruption, self-interest versus collective interest, change versus stasis, progress versus status quo.

The scenario, which is grounded in particular American reality, blends effectively politics and sex, important issues with trivia and gossip, real events and tabloid scandals. In other words, “Ides of March” is very much a film of our times, defined by our times, and made for our times.

A dark, cynical tale of sex, ambition, loyalty, betrayal and revenge, set against a familiar political background, “Ides of March” is essentially a modern film noir, centering on a young, initially idealistic press spokesman, brilliantly played by Ryan Gosling, who falls prey to various personal and social forces: backroom politics, treacherous manipulations of veteran operatives and seduction by a young intern.  Each of these forces has a positive add a negative side, which jointly pull us in (and out of) the engaging narrative.

George Clooney plays suave, handsome Governor Mike Morris, a candidate running in the presidential primary race for the Democratic Part.  As such, he relies heavily on the decisions made by his bright and savvy campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Morris is particularly dependent on his press spokesman, who prepares his speeches and directs (literally) his on-stage appearances, down to the smallest gesture.  In the first scene, we actually watch how Gosling stages such a performance, which moments later is repeated, word-by-word, movement-by-movement, pause-by-pause, punch line by punch line by Morris.

Most of the story is set during a chilly winter in the midst of the crucial Ohio primary, pitting Morris against the republican candidate, Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell, in a small and underdeveloped role).  At this point of the game, it is unclear to what extent the influential Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright, nailing his part in three scenes) would endorse Morris or his opponent.  And the endorsement means a lot in terms of votes and numbers.

Turning point occurs, when on a weak moment Meyers takes a telephone call and then agrees to a brief meeting with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager of republican Pullman,.  Without fanfare or even explanation, Duffy offers Meyers a lucrative offer–to jump over the fence to their side.  Would Meyers, who’s beginning to lose his security and self-confidence be able to keep the offer a secret? For how long?  And if caught, at what price?

A pivotal character, Meyers appears in almost every scene of the film.  At the beginning of the tale, Meyers comes across as a smart, confident man, representing the best at what he does, a man on top of the game, the one pro every candidate and manager wants working for him.  However, by the end of the film, he’s radically transformed, and while he may be better at his job than he had ever been before, he had lost his value system, heart, conscience–and his soul.

We learn that Meyers had played some dirty pool in his past, but working for a purist politician like Morris represents a whole new ball game. He really wants to bring about change in the country and in the world, and he believes that as a candidate Morris can achieve that. Yet Meyers is attentive to the possibility of losing the campaign (the numbers fluctuate in Cincinnati) and the impact of that loss on his future career, not to mention his  ego.  By the end of the saga, which unfolds as a journey, having made along the way so many compromises, Meyers is a totally different, almost unrecognizable man. (Just watch Gosling’s facial expression, look, and walk during this dark (inevitable?) transformation.

Watching Ryan Gosling in yet another powerful performance reaffirms that he is not just the kind of brilliant actor that Sean Penn was for his generation, but that he may be the most gifted and versatile actor working today.

“Ides of March” unfolds in a smooth, accessible way that does not require that we know or understand much about the American political process. That said, the film does offer a detailed, fascinating, scary look into the behind the scenes of our political system that might still surprise many viewers.

Very much a man’s world, “Ides of March” contains only two parts for women.  Marisa Tomei plays adequately an obnoxious Jewish reporter named Ida Horowitz, who’s constantly sniffing for scoops and breaking-news.

Far more significant is the role played by Evan Rachel Wood, Molly, a very young (still a minor), bright girl who’s sexually and romantically involved with a number of the key players.  Her subplot will touch a chord with American viewers familiar with the sexual scandals that have defined recent political campaigns (both presidential and gubernatorial).

I don’t know whose choice it was to begin and close the tale symmetrically.  In the first scene, we see Molly walking, bringing coffee to the players. The camera tracks her, while we hear the voices of the male protagonists discussing and rehearsing the upcoming speech.  And in the very last scene, we see yet another young, attractive intern bringing coffee to a new set of players.

These book ends makes you wonder to what extent director Clooney, perhaps too cynical for his own good, implies that the fate of the new intern might follow that of Molly’s tragic demise.   No matter how you read this visual symmetry, it lends the political tale a circular quality, which fits the film’s realistic political philosophy.

The Title

The Ides of March (in Latin Idus Martiae), the name of March 15 in the Roman calendar, was a festive day dedicated to the god Mars.  The term refers to the date on which Julius Caesar was killed  in the Roman Senate by conspirators headed by Marcus Brutus. In Shakespeare’s famous play “Julius Caesar,” Caesar is warned by a soothsayer, “beware the Ides of March.”