A film review by Craig J. Koban October 12, 2011


2011, R, 96mins.

Ryan Gosling: Stephen Meyers / George Clooney: Gov. Morris / Philip Seymour Hoffman: Paul Zara / Paul Giamatti: Tom Duffy / Marisa Tomei: Ida Horowicz / Evan Rachel Wood: Molly Stearns /Jeffrey Wright: Sen. Thompson

Directed by George Clooney / Written by Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, based on Willimon's play "Farragut North"

“Beware the ides of March.”

- Soothsayer, Shakespeare’s JULIUS CAESAR

The title to George Clooney’s fourth film as a director is noteworthy:  THE IDES OF MARCH is an allusion to the day that Julius Caesar was killed and it also just happens to be the same day as the Ohio Primaries (March 15).  

Like the works of Shakespeare, THE IDES OF MARCH is permeated by classical themes of idealism, ambition, loyalty, betrayal, and backstabbing comeuppance.  The film, at face value, is a deeply and mercilessly contemptuous look at contemporary insider politics set during the days that leads up to the Ohio Democratic Presidential Primary, but Clooney’s film is arguably less about politics and more about how young and deeply idealistic men are willing to unethically sell themselves to a power structure well beyond their immediate control.  It asks an ageless question: is it okay to completely abandon every high and righteous ideal that you hold dear in the interests of getting ahead in the political arena?  If anything, the real victims while on this journey for answers are truth and honor. 

Amazingly, Clooney’s film – which he co-wrote with Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, based on the 2008 play FARRAGUT NORTH by Willimon – never seems to take political sides, which certainly could have been a temptation here (Clooney is a well publicized supporter of the Democrats).  It’s more about how people that lust for power and control – regardless of party – will do anything to gain it, even if it costs them their souls.  Having some sort of a political prejudice here would have been a misstep for Clooney and company, but he is shrewd enough as a filmmaker now to understand and respect audiences’ attention spans and their intelligence.  In the end, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Party…does it really matter what side you’re on if everyone plays the same immoral and unscrupulous mind games? 

Even though Clooney writes, directs, and stars, he unselfishly allows THE IDES OF MARCH to belong to another character and actor, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), who is the Junior Campaign Manager for Mike Morris (Clooney), the Governor of Pennsylvania and a hopeful Presidential candidate that is competing against Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell).  With the Ohio Primary on the horizon, Meyers pulls out all of the stops to get Governor Morris the big push he needs.  Likewise, Pullman’s people, led by Senior Campaign Manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) also work through the days and nights to get their candidate the much-needed Ohio vote, which would essentially allow for a fairly easy walk towards the presidency. 

Meyers is young, but he does make up for it when it comes to experience and opportunistic idealism: he believes that only good can happen to people that make the right decisions.  His positive political ideology is thrown a curveball when Duffy approaches him and asks him to jump ship and join him on the Pullman campaign.  Of course, Meyers holds his own during their brief meeting, stating that he firmly believes in Governor Morris’ campaign platform.  The crafty old veteran that is Duffy looks incredulously at his much greener opposition and essentially tells him that his naiveté clouds reality and that his optimism won’t stand the test of time.  He further tells Meyers that Morris, with time, will end up just as corrupt as any other candidate.  Meyers, steadfast in his loyalty, still refuses to abandon the Governor. 

Things become really problematic on the campaign front.  Meyers gets into considerable trouble when Morris’ Senior Campaign manager (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) finds out about his semi-clandestine visit with the opposition, which infuriates him.  Then there is a pesky and persistent reporter (Marisa Tomei) that manages to find out about the meeting between Meyers and Duffy and wants to go public with it, which could damage the Morris campaign.  Then there is the matter of both sides getting the endorsement of Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright) that has 300 pledged delegates and will support either side if promised the Secretary of State position, which Morris refuses to give over, seeing as he hates being leveraged.  Finally, Meyers gets into some real hot water as he begins a sexual fling with a pretty young intern (Evan Rachel Wood) that has a very ugly and very damaging secret that could spell doom for Morris’ whole campaign. 



If there is one thing that Clooney does with pinpoint accuracy it would be that he (a) gets the very best of his finely assembled group of actors and (b) he knows how to craft atmosphere and capture the corrupt double-dealing milieu of his film.  There is an unmistakable authenticity to THE IDES OF MARCH that many political thrillers lack: Whether it be with using real locations, real life media personalities, or acid tongued and rapid fire dialogue that has the swiftly vulgar matter-of-factness of an Aaron Sorkin, Clooney makes the film breathe with a unfiltered genuineness.  The personas that populate this film feel lived in, like they’ve populated the political world for years, and it is that sense of intimate verisimilitude that makes THE IDES OF MARCH simmer with a crackling evocation of time and place. 

Clooney, as an actor, knows how to be an actor’s director, and the cast here is spot-on perfect.  Hoffman has an implosive energy that could bust at any moment as Morris’s senior manager and Giamatti brings a soulful conviction and an underplayed ruthlessness to his political manager.  Tomei, in a brief, but important role is solid as her tough-as-nails New York reporter that has no problem playing as dirty as her politician targets.  Jeffrey Wright is all kinds of right as his Senator that’s willing to sell his principles to the highest bidder.  Evan Rachel Wood is delicately nuanced in her tricky role as the intern that holds the key to Morris’ success and has to deal with her own damaging personal dilemmas at the same time.  And, of course, there’s Clooney himself as an Obama-esque candidate who sells himself as the hopeful President-to-be that has all the answers, but harbors a sinister edge underneath his congenial façade that will stop at nothing to get want he wants. 

Gosling, however, as he has done in countless films, owns every frame of THE IDES OF MARCH, right down to its chillingly enigmatic final shot.  He has a formidable challenge of commanding scenes opposite a squad of Oscar winning and nominated actors, and he does so with an introverted intensity and sad and detached melancholy.   He captures his role’s youthful exuberance and decent-minded hubris early on, but then when faced with the more illicitly damning choices that mean ending or continuing on his own career, Gosling makes Meyers a heartbreakingly pathetic – but deceitfully clever – puppet in a field that he once thought was honorable.  He also occupies one of the best standoff scenes in a long time when he finally confronts Morris in a dark and dreary hotel kitchen, and the way they both give and take, usurping the momentum and edge from one another and then giving it up, is eerily riveting.  After DRIVE and CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE, THE IDES OF MARCH rounds off a superlative triumvirate of stellar performances for Gosling.   

THE IDES OF MARCH, alas, is not a runaway, Oscar darling, landslide victory for Clooney.  The film’s running time is perhaps too short to dig deeply into its themes (it’s barely 90-plus minutes) and many of its would-be shocking plot reveals can be seen with relative ease early on.  Furthermore, the overall screenplay lacks a powerful profundity it wants to achieve.  Ultimately, THE IDES OF MARCH does not offer up any startling new insights into the politic process that we didn’t already know (planning and running a campaign is soul-crushing and compromises who you are…been there, done that).  Yet, the lack of a new and noteworthy message to relay does not cripple THE IDES OF MARCH too badly.  As a disturbing and incendiary morality play, Clooney’s virtuoso and empowered cast and his dexterously attuned direction are enough to win over my vote for a solid recommendation.

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