Thursday, October 20, 2011



- We are in an age where it's easy to get frustrated with our government. Legislation is affected more by lobbyists than by real lawmakers. Compromise gives way to hard-edged party politics. And over and over again, we see politicians who claim to know what's best for America reveal themselves to be fatally flawed as people and as leaders. And yet ... I think some of today's cynicism has more to do with just how open our society is today. It's hard to keep secrets. It's easy to be exposed if you say one thing on one talk show, but contradict yourself on another. A muttered aside could quickly become a YouTube sensation. And the media is relentless - in the post Watergate world, there's no scandal or potential scandal left untouched. So if a politician really screws up - as they often do - then really, it's only a matter of time before the other shoe drops. And that's what THE IDES OF MARCH is all about - the way in which a modern presidential campaign is run, and the compromises made in the quest to get a candidate elected. The contrast here is that the candidate in question is idealistic, liberal, and popular. But the backroom dealings, moral grey areas, and personal shortcomings that characterize the candidate and his campaign are a stain on an outwardly progressive run for office. Of course, this being 2011, it's only a matter of time, as I said, before the other shoe drops.

THE IDES OF MARCH is a really, really well done film - a crackling political drama that features some of today's best actors at the top of their games. Up until now, I had mixed feelings about George Clooney as a director, but this is certainly his best directorial effort to date, and has a confident pacing and sense of tension that makes the movie one of Clooney's best overall in quite some time. Acting-wise, Clooney is more of a supporting character here - as Democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris - and yet his shadow looms large on the entire plot and on all of the other characters who orbit around him. Governor Morris is portrayed as a new sort of candidate - straight-talking, pragmatic, non-idealistic, but with a staunchly liberal agenda: pro-environment, pro-technology, pro-gay-marriage. The glimpses we see of him in debates show why he's a frontrunner even with his rather porgressive views - in many ways, he's simply George Clooney as political candidate - well-spoken, articulate, to-the-point, airtight and logical in his arguments, and charismatic to the nth degree. The film is set as the Ohio Democratic Primary is fast-approaching, with Morris in a tight race for the state, that could very well be the difference maker in terms of selecting a Democratic candidate for president.

Despite Morris being the central, towering presence in the film, our true main character is Ryan Gosling's Stephen Myers - the second-in-command of Morris' campaign. Myers is a young, bright political prodigy who has quickly risen through the ranks and become a trusted strategist for Morris. And when we first meet Meyers, he very much believes in the promise of his candidate. Meyers is politically idealistic, and he really believes that Morris is the right man at the right time to be America's next president. Of course, Meyer's quick rise has led to some tension with his battle-tested boss, Paul Zara. Played by the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, Zara is sor the classic PSH character - world-weary, tightly-wound, and the kind of guy you don't want to piss off. Gosling and Hoffman are both great in this one. Coming off of his awesome turn in Drive, Gosling is officially on a hot streak. And Hoffman is given a lot more to chew on here than he gets in the recent Moneyball, even though he's playing a similar sort of character. It's also a blast to see Paul Giamatti in the mix as the slimy campaign manager for the rival Democratic candidate. Giamatti and Seymour-Hoffman in the same film, as political rivals? That's just a recipe for gravitas right there, and both actors deliver in spades.

There are a couple of excellent female performances in this one as well. The huge standout is Evan Rachel Wood as Molly, a young intern on the Morris campaign who, as political interns are prone to do, helps to set off some major trouble for Morris and Meyers. Wood is consistently great in her film and TV roles - I hope this is the start of her getting some increasingly high-profile parts. Suffice it to say, she and Gosling play off each other very well, and Wood brings a nice mixture of innocence and scandal to the picture. Also key to the plot is Marisa Tomei as an intrepid NY Times reporter covering the Morris campaign. Tomei is such a natural here that it's easy to overlook how good she is in the part. Definitely one of my favorite actresses, she's a scene-stealer in everything she does.

I don't want to go too much into the plot for fear of spoiling things, but I will say that the movie has a number of nicely-plotted twists and turns that take things further and further down the rabbit hole. And yet, as dark as things get, the disturbing thing is that there are at least a handful of recent, real-life political scandals that trump this fictional one. That said, I was surprised at just how unapologetically cynical and dark this movie gets - never in an over-the-top manner - but it's the plausibility of it all that makes the film so bleak. As I alluded to though, it's a very smart, very tension-filled script. For a story that keeps things well within the realm of reality, it's amazing how compelling and drama-filled things get.

One of my few complaints with the film is that the final act just feels too rushed. The shift that eventually happens in Ryan Gosling's character would make more sense if it was more of a slow build, but as is it's a big change that happens in a short time. My other small but nagging grievance is that somewhat sinister plan hatched by Paul Giamatti's character early in the film just struck me as a bit too convoluted, and yet one that worked to sabotage the Morris campaign all too easily. Without spoiling things, it just felt like it was far too easy for Giamatti to get Gosling in hot water with his colleagues and with the press, and that it was the sort of thing that a smart press agent on the Morris side could have easily deflected.

All in all though, I thoroughly enjoyed THE IDES OF MARCH. Just seeing this great cast working together was, in and of itself, a pleasure. But the script was very good - tense, gripping, and thought-provoking in its skewering of the modern political process. In this day and age, we don't need a lot of nudging to be cynical of politicians, but this is a film that has a timely reminder to be curious about the means that are required to get to the end of winning a modern election. As Clooney and co. point out, the truth behind the scenes, well ... it ain't always pretty.

My Grade: A-

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