Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Film Review: "The Ides of March"

"The Ides of March" is a solid, effective political thriller.  It accomplishes the rare feat of guiding viewers through the tedious labyrinth of American politics by entertaining us with a suspense-filled story. 

The plot is almost too plausible to be far-fetched.  It might not say anything new about corruption, betrayal, backstabbing and one-upmanship that form the sorry state of American presidential elections; but it does stand out as a fine example of the highest levels of skill and polish that American movies have to offer.  "The Ides of March" is a sophisticated potboiler.

Ryan Gosling is the super-idealistic media manager for a Democratic Presidential candidate (George Clooney), who is in a tight race in the Ohio primary against an adversary that is known for playing dirty politics.  Gosling's character is a sincere and skillful player, an impressive spinner, who impresses Clooney with his knowledge of public opinion and how to manipulate it.  That is, until he gets involved with a pretty young intern (Evan Rachel Wood) with close family ties to the Democratic party. This eventually leads to his discovery that his hero Clooney is embroiled in a potentially career-ending scandal.

How he reacts to this discoraging development, and learns to survive by beating everyone at their viscious game, makes for a highly watchable if cynical piece of filmmaking.

The heart of the film is Gosling's character's slow movement into disillusionment.  It can be seen as the loss of innocence of a whole electorate; but I think the film wisely eschewed such ambitions. It's a good look at a particular character.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is the campaign's chief of staff, a seasoned and cynical politico, who knows  how to play dirty, but still holds to some notion of loyalty. Paul Giamatti (less annoying than usual but still hammy) is the manager of the rival campaign, a snake-in-the-grass among snakes, who makes a phone call that sets Gosling's desperate descent into motion. Marisa Tomei is an political insider, a reporter for the New York Times who cheerfully exploits everyone.  Jeffrey Wright (playing beneath his talents) is a senator whose hotly-sought endorsement is the catalyst for all kinds of double-dealing on all sides.

Gosling can carry a film, and is showing an interesting range.  This is the fourth film I have seen him in this year (I like to think that it's due to Gosling's good taste in selecting properties, ones that interest me!) along with "Blue Valentine", "Crazy Stupid Love", and "Drive".  He reminds me of the high-school jock who shocks everyone by how good he is in the drama club.  He commands the scenes he is in, and has a slow, deliberate manner of speech, like Brando with good diction.  It hope he continues to appear in mature roles in serious fare.

Clooney's is more of a supporting role. It was clever to cast himself as a Democratic candidate (a foreshadowing?) whose ideas are on the money for today's voters, practical and easy to support, while his character is ensnared in a morally indefensible dilemma.  Had this character been portrayed as  Republican, the film would have received the knee-jerk scorn of Fox-News types and those who are threatened by National Public Radio as being too partisan.

All other cast members performed well in one of the year's best ensembles.  Funny, but at times this movie seemed to be a stop-off for cast members on their way to do other films: Gosling and Tomei both in "Crazy Stupid Love", Hoffman in "Moneyball", Clooney in "The Descendants",  Giamatti in "Win-Win", Wood in "True Blood."  Perhaps this film was a labor of love, a film they all believed in.  If so, I applaud the involvement of each of them.

I was absorbed by the well-written and fast-paced film (screenplay by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon based on his play "Farragut North").  During the intense climactic confrontation between Gosling and Clooney, shot in shadowy closeup, it hit me how nicely directed this movie is even though at that moment I had forgotten who directed this film.  It is, of course, Clooney's picture, a worthy follow-up to another compelling political drama, "Good Night and Good Luck".  Clooney is blessed with a strong technical crew; the look of the film, the design and lighting, are top-notch; and the film is edited down to the exact frame, moves quickly and goes down smoothly.

The plot turns on an accidental discovery found on a character's i-phone text.  Was this part of the original play? Maybe because this was the second consecutive film I saw where this plot device was used ("Like Crazy" was the other one), that I regarded this as a new, already tired cliche, one that should be banned from Hollywood films from now on.

I cannot imagine how this film plays to viewers from outside the U.S.  The machinations, the blackmail that are all a part of "politics", must seem insane, and counter-intuitive to the governance of this country.  If Clooney stays in Hollywood instead of Washington, he may do all of us a public service by continuing to create high-quality, well, played motion pictures like "The Ides of March" that raise audiences' awareness of the madness of our political system, and even move them to positive action.

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