(by Dustin Putman
The hypocrisy of politics isn't a new topic for which to base a film upon, but it is cast in an especially dismaying light in "The Ides of March," a thoroughly absorbing thriller that bests George Clooney's last effort as director (2005's "Good Night, and Good Luck."). Here, in an adaptation of Beau Willimon's play "Farragut North," co-writers Clooney and Grant Heslov are free from the constraints of telling a fact-based story and need only concern themselves with creating their own onscreen history. Simultaneously indirect and pointed, the picture smartly concerns itself with a Democratic Primary rather than an all-parties Presidential election, casting a shadow of cynicism over the cutthroat, backstabbing nature of politicos from a side—the decided Left—that should aptly silence Clooney's naysayers. It's an unbiased approach, as well as a smart one; if a person can't even trust their own Party—and they can't—is there anybody worth putting their trust into? Article continues below
The banner year for Ryan Gosling (2011's "Drive") keeps getting fuller and richer and more exciting, each new role just another one for him to not only hit out of the park, but the entire neighborhood. He plays Stephen Myers, the 30-year-old press secretary for Mike Morris (George Clooney), an earnest, beat-of-his-own-drum governor about to either make it or break it in the Ohio Primaries. A win would all but ensure his Presidential candidacy, while a loss would be a huge blow he may not recover from. When Stephen is approached by Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), campaign manager for opponent Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell), and offered a job to work for him, he is secretly flattered but not about to alter his allegiances to Morris and respective campaign manager Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). He may eventually wish he had reconsidered once Times journalist Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) comes calling, threatening to run with the damning story if he doesn't talk to her. The situation gets stickier from there, Stephen's new romance with 20-year-old intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) taking a whiplash-inducing turn when it is discovered her ties to Morris run deeper than that of any other lowly apprentice.
Early in "The Ides of March," Governor Mike Morris stands at the podium during the Primary Debates and states that he doesn't believe in Christianity or Buddhism or any other religion. "I believe in the Constitution of the United States," he declares. In an age when so much stock is placed on a person's belief in the Bible, Morris is adamant that he stand outside of all that and not pander to it. He wants all people to feel like equals in his eyes, a valiant notion that sounds awfully good, but could also simply be an easy way to deflect from having to answer the question at all. Mike Morris appears to be a forward thinker, but as Stephen comes to gradually find out, there is much more to him than what is revealed on camera, during speeches, or in the office. Worse still, it is Stephen and the rest of his team that stand to lose along with the man they're working for. It's not that this alternative would be horrible—working at a consulting firm on K Street in lieu of at the White House—but that his and everyone else's good name is in jeopardy over the person they represent.
A smooth-talking hot-shot who slowly finds that he's still got a lot to learn when it comes to Capitol Hill, Stephen Myers is a complicated, imminently watchable protagonist brought to fully-realized fruition by Ryan Gosling. A big dog with an office at the campaign headquarters, Stephen's outer confidence is betrayed by his idealistic inexperience. He has no idea what he's in for, that every decision he makes is bound for a reaction. This extends to his relationship with Molly, their initial flirtation like a sensual dance of verbal one-upmanship. Gosling is worth following anywhere, but so is Evan Rachel Wood (2011's "The Conspirator"), as vivacious as she is poignant as the in-over-her-head Molly. Their chemistry together is palpable enough that they should star opposite each other next time in something not quite as bleak. Paul Giamatti (2011's "Win Win") and Phillip Seymour Hoffman (2011's "Moneyball") are excellent as campaign managers Tom Duffy and Paul Zara, flips of the same coin. And as Governor Mike Morrris, George Clooney (2010's "The American") is subdued yet haunting, a tough nut to crack symbolic of the gray area that follows all politicians. He means well in many respects, but behind closed doors can unleash passive-aggressive rants without so much as raising the tone of his voice. A saint or a sinner? An angel or the devil? None of the above. He's simply a guy whose mistakes are only outweighed by his somewhat delusional sense of power.
Moodily photographed by Phedon Papamichael (2010's "Knight and Day") in Cincinnati and Ann Arbor—it's always nice to see a film move away from the usual LA/NY locations—and portentously scored by composer Alexandre Desplat (2011's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2"), "The Ides of March" matches its memorable title in sheer foreboding. Our guide through the treacherous undercurrents is Ryan Gosling's Stephen Myers, a man whose deep disappointments are catalyst for the backbone he ultimately grows. When he states in the last scene that it "all comes down to integrity," his inference is left sumptuously ambiguous, debate-worthy in and of itself. The film hasn't a dry moment, which might account for the brevity of its 101 minutes. As it winds down, don't be shocked if you only assumed it was at the halfway mark. Better to be too quick and make an impression, though, than to draw things out to the point where meaning ceases to exist. Even when it is crossing well-worn paths, "The Ides of March" engenders to leave its own stirring mark.