REVIEW: "The Ides of March"


Politics is a cycle. That’s what I was thinking as I left a screening of George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, The Ides of March. The film argues that individual players may come and go, but the political cycle is always churning, pulling new people in and pushing old ones out. Like in an election campaign, we’re left to question how comfortable we are with this depiction of politics, and how to react: to agree, disagree or stay on the fence.

True to the film's theatrical origins, Clooney doesn't ignore the important players. The Ides of March ultimately examines how the political system changes people, forcing them to grapple with the hard realities of the game.

The film follows Steven Myers (Ryan Gosling), a campaign staffer for an idealistic American presidential candidate, Mike Morris (George Clooney). Morris is painted from the beginning of the film as a proxy for Barack Obama: charismatic, precise and focused. Myers is originally a devout fan of Morris, claiming that he truly believes in what Morris can offer to the American people.

As Myers pounds along the campaign trail, though, he recognizes that the attitudes of his colleagues and rivals towards the political process are increasingly cynical. Myers’ boss Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) begin using dirty tactics to win the Ohio primary for their respective candidates. When a damning piece of information is revealed to Myers, suddenly he has to decide who to trust, and what that decision says about him.

I’ve been a fan of Clooney as a director for some time, ever since I saw his 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck, about Edward R. Murrow’s famous on-air duel with Senator Joseph McCarthy. Here, Clooney adapted the play Farragut North to make The Ides of March, and the movie’s source text reveals itself in the way we watch these characters scurry about a figurative stage, playing out the betrayals and intrigue.

Where the movie breaks away from its theatrical roots is in the cinematography of certain key scenes. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael has shot behind-the-scenes political material before, in Oliver Stone’s biopic W. Here, Papamichael and Clooney take the viewer to where they cannot go in a stage play: intimate close-up shots of characters’ faces that reveal all the mental turmoil and decision-making in progress.

Thankfully, Clooney doesn’t use this approach in every scene. Sometimes, he does the opposite: wide shots of characters speaking where we don’t hear any dialogue. In one brilliant shot, we see Myers, Zara and a group of minor staffers stand in parallel offices, separated by windows. The camera focuses on each office in turn, cutting off the audio of the previous speaker. It captures how a campaign office is at once a team focusing on a single goal and a number of individuals fighting private battles.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the list of strong performances in this movie. Gosling, Giamatti, and Hoffman have each crafted characters that defy expectations. At several points, I thought I had them nailed down, but then they would surprise me again. Evan Rachel Wood has a very interesting role as a Morris campaign intern, which she handles nicely. Then there’s Marisa Tomei as a New York Times reporter and Jeffrey Wright as a flip-flopping senator – in all, a standout cast.

Clooney’s secondary role as the Pennsylvania governor-turned-candidate is another layered part of the movie. The film encourages us at first to see Mike Morris as a clone of Obama, but as the film plays out, he takes on shades of other notable Democrats like Bill Clinton, John Edwards and even John F. Kennedy.  While Morris is an intelligent composition of real Democrats, he still has his own thoughts; I felt that if he were real, the Morris character could do quite well in a presidential election.

The Obama connection is waved a bit too prominently through frequent uses of a Morris version of the Obama “Hope” poster, but it doesn’t detract from the film. This is because the movie isn’t about who the characters resemble – it’s about the whirling vortex of politics and what happens to the people sucked (or thrown into) the storm.

The Ides of March doesn’t come down on the side of any one character: Myers, Morris, Zara, Duffy and the others all come out as humans, with skills, ambitions and faults. There is no clear-cut good guy or bad guy, and this realistic portrayal of behind-the-scenes politics is perhaps what makes The Ides of March so effective.

As I alluded to at the beginning, the ultimate goal of The Ides of March is to comment on the cyclical nature of politics. Steven Myers makes the kinds of decisions that many men before him would have made. The only change, perhaps, are the specific people Myers encounters over the course of the film. The end of the film might leave some viewers wanting, but I think it, too, reflects the political process: the public face of the system always hides the most compelling details.

A movie with a similar premise, made 15 or 20 years from now, could arrive at the same conclusion. The important difference, however, would be that the characters would make the film memorable. We would see another true-to life collection of bright political minds, being drawn into the maelstrom of secret deals and back-room meetings that actually shape America’s future.

For the brilliant performances of its cast, the layered cinematography, and smart direction, The Ides of March gets four stars out of four.

What did you think of the movie? What kind of message did you derive from the script? Do you like Clooney as a director? Were you disappointed with any of the allusions to real-life politicians? Join the conversation about The Ides of March below, and browse through my past reviews:

Recent 2011 Releases:

Moneyball | Drive

Midnight in Paris | Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson

Reviews of Classic Movies:

The Graduate (1967)Rope (1948) | 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)