Review: The Ides of March (2011)


When it made the rounds of the fall festival season, early word on George Clooney’s The Ides of March was surprisingly mixed, with most early notices leaning in a decidedly negative direction. “Wow… politicians are corrupt…what a novel idea!” was the snickering crux of many reactions. “What does this movie tell us that’s new?”

In response, I would offer that only a surface analysis could come to such a shallow conclusion. Of course The Ides of March is dealing with the same corrupted political landscape scores of other movie have dealt with for decades. What’s unique and powerful is that Clooney approaches the material knowing full well that the territory is well-trodden, and therefore pushes himself to dig deeper into personalities and conflicts, offering keener insights into the wide variety of moral quandaries that are omnipresent in the political spin zone.

Based on Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, the film focuses on Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the cracker-jack young staffer for upstart presidential contender Mike Morris (Clooney). Morris is locked in a tight battle to win the Democratic nomination in the lead-up to the Ohio primary, and Meyers is the smart, charming, idealistic media consultant for the campaign. What Meyers sees in his candidate is the pure hope of honest change; Morris speaks blunt truth about fighting for legitimate change in ways not dissimilar from Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign, or the less-successful Howard Dean of 2004. Meyers embodies the stirred soul of the True Liberal — he believes that real, systematic change must happen in America, and in Morris sees a candidate capable of truly ushering in that change.

In The Ides of March, each plot turn unravels slowly but explodes with the unexpected jolt of a landmine. To discuss too many of the story’s elements would be to spoil the rich depth of discovery the film engenders. But without giving too much away, there are two crucial decisions that set Stephen’s treacherous path of down-and-dirty political machinations. The first is meeting the rival candidate’s campaign manager (a blisteringly effective Paul Giamatti) at a bar. The second is taking a young intern (Evan Rachel Wood) to dinner. How these separate events, both entered with innocent intentions and resulting in otherwise-benign outcomes, turn so potent and dangerous cannot be revealed. I can say that this screenplay, by Clooney, frequent collaborator Grant Heslov, and Willimon, is startlingly precise in its depiction of how a political campaign — and the people involved in said campaign — can begin to rot from the inside-out and outside-in simultaneously.

The cast here is deep with talent and is universally excellent. Giamatti gets to chew on his best character in years. Wood has the perilous task of presenting herself as a confident seductress and then peeling back the layers to reveal the devastated victim underneath. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Morris’ cynical veteran campaign manager, who is driven almost solely on fierce loyalty. Marisa Tomei shows up as the ever-present journalist who’s been around too long to buy into the promised purity of any political candidate, and who can predict the path Stephen will chart long before he charts it. Clooney might be playing the film’s most pivotal supporting role. He is always the film’s object, the face of the campaign and the leader of the pack, who we only get substantive glimpses of when he’s giving a speech, or preparing for a public appearance, or meeting with his advisors. But the entire film hinges on the choices he makes, most of which we never see, and yet we absorb a rich understanding of not only this fictional candidate, but of the brutal, illusion-shattering reality of what any candidate must do to reach any high office.

Gosling, though, is the film’s MVP, and his work here puts an exclamation point on a breakout year for this brilliant young actor. Here he embodies what appears at first glance to be a traditional “innocent hero witnesses unspeakable corruption” kind of role, but this story wallops him at every turn, gradually beating the innocent right out of him. Gosling is masterful at conveying each stage of emotion, charting every beat in the collapse of Stephen’s idealism.

The Ides of March poses beautifully complex political questions that can’t be fully dissected without delivering a string of plot spoilers. But what Clooney brings to this material — aside from his proven chops as a serious filmmaker — is a well-known record of liberalism that serves him well in navigating this story. “Politicians are corrupt” is certainly an obvious, well-worn axiom, but Clooney dares to explore the thin line between corruption and necessity, between professional transgression and ideological virtue. No one would condone the actions of a sinful man…but what if that sinful man stood for the principles that really could change the country for the better? Clooney ponders these questions not merely through the Gosling character, but also through his own presidential hopeful, as well as Wood’s ambitious intern and Hoffman’s weathered political strategist. They are thrown together in an elegant tempest of political intrigue, drawn with gorgeous operatic strokes. Clooney has long been a strong writer and intriguing visualist, but in terms of challenging thematic cohesion and depth of storytelling, this is his most accomplished directorial work to date. The Ides of March is a grand-scale political epic with shattering intimacy at its core, a tragic story of how an earnest, naïve do-gooder can be unceremoniously transformed from one who rages against the machine into the most well-polished cog in that machine.

90/100 - The Ides of March is an operatic tour-de-force of political intrigue and acute character study — Clooney’s finest hour.

Jason McKiernan

I married into the cult of cinema at a very young age - I wasn't of legal marriage age, but I didn't care. It has taken advantage of me and abused me many times. Yet I stay in this marriage because I'm obsessed and consumed. Don't try to save me -- I'm too far gone.
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  • Sam Fragoso

    Entirely agree: a tour-de-force of acting and storytelling. Nice review guys.