Playing Politics

Capping off an endless run of intelligent political thrillers (“Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Syriana,” “Michael Clayton”), George Clooney helms yet another, “Ides of March” — this time as writer, directer and, of course, smirky and charming costar. And while there are no surprising insights into campaign life, taut pacing and an excellent cast help “Ides of March” capture betrayal and loss of innocence in a new light.

As suggested by its title, a reference to the soothsayer’s lethal premonition in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” the film is inspired by the classic tragedy (though based off the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon), transplanting it into a modern-day political race wherein the “ides” now mark the date of the Ohio Democratic Primary election. Clooney casts himself as the candidate, Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris, whose managers Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) juggle interviews and pen speeches in the weeks leading up to the primary.

Though the campaign belongs to Morris, his face is seen more often in Obama-style tri-tone posters than in person. So, like Marcus Brutus, Meyers and his conflict comprise the story’s focus.
It’s a direction beautifully posed in the opening shot: Meyers stands at a podium and delivers the opening lines of a captivating campaign speech.We believe him to be the candidate until the empty auditorium is revealed — it’s only a sound check. Clooney directs the illusion cleverly, establishing Meyers’ hidden ambition as reaching further than the confines of junior campaign manager — an ambition that will inevitably lead him to trouble.

At the start, however, Meyers is the most idealistic man on the campaign, coming into sharp contrast against his cunning and cynical senior manager, Zara. Hoffman fits the character perfectly: gruff, fierce, quick and ruthless. The two have a nice dynamic, as actors and in character — Gosling himself a confident rising star and Hoffman a well-established one.

The biting, confident script penned by Beau Willimon (adapting his own play) and Grant Heslov and Clooney himself paints the political machine as a corrupt place, full of betrayal, double-crosses and sold souls.

Morris’ Democratic opponent’s manager, Tom Duffy (Giamatti), for example, offers Meyers a position in the rival campaign, and with Morris’ prospects not looking great, he agrees to talk to him — a decision that will inevitably follow him for the rest of the film.

Gosling’s intensity is coolly subdued — never approaching the head-smashing ferocity of his performance in “Drive” earlier this year — as he pulls perhaps his most realistic performance to date. There is a scene where after one betrayal, he strides into Duffy’s office to learn of another — and here we see the full transformation from a naive anger at the unfairness to a realization that he should have expected this from the start. Gosling wisely holds back here, not indulging himself in a over-the-top cathartic outburst, but instead keeping his anger on a tight leash. The closing shot, in fact, is a close-up of Gosling’s face in an interview, removed of expression, held long enough to see the pain trapped in his eyes. It’s a quiet notch up for Clooney’s lucrative hobby, and an affirmation of Gosling’s already-evident talent.

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