"I'm not going away."
It took far too long for me to finally get to seeing George Clooney's fourth directorial effort. It's difficult to believe that he's already had that many films under his belt as a director. And the fact of the matter is that he still has no real identity as a director. Between this, "Good Night and Good Luck", "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind", and the odd move of "Leatherheads", we can't really say what his style is. Even two films in, Ben Affleck has a known stylistic mind about him, as well as an integrity that keeps getting stronger. We've yet to see that from Clooney, but he seems to be getting there. It's a testimony to how much he knows the industry he's in that "The Ides of March" doesn't fall apart.
The film opens unassumingly, with Ryan Gosling heading up to a microphone and speaking things that would seemingly condemn him in a debate. It's not just that there's no context to it, but there's no real passion in it, because these words don't belong to him. They may have been written by him, but they belong to his employer, democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris, played with a practice sense of entitlement by Clooney. Gosling's Stephen Meyers is working on Morris' campaign under senior manager Paul Zara, played very much like Phillip Seymour Hoffman by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. This isn't so much about political goings-on as it is about tentative politics. Everything's up in the air, and anybody is expendable without a second thought.
But this film isn't truly about politics at all, or at least it isn't about current day politics. Yes, there's some bandying back and forth about campaigns on the offensive and defensive, but as for what the film is to its core, you need look no further than the title. Yes, this film is about betrayal of those you care about in search of power that is ultimately deemed as hollow. But more than that, it is a Roman historical tale set in the present day. Sex, betrayal, jealousy, morality, and all that goes with them. They're all in this film's arsenal. The film holds to this right down to the below-the-line elements.
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael lenses so many of his scenes of that "golden age" hue echoing the candlelit scenes of historical epics, yet finds other ways to sneak in homage. A scene towards the end of film shows an out-of-focus Gosling headed toward an interviewee chair, but it serves more as an ascension to the throne, and a powerful one at that. Alexandre Desplat's score goes over the same theme perhaps more than it needed to, but it gave the film a sort of "call to arms" sense of urgency. It's not just a men marching theme as many will write it off as. It's a direct tribute to the historical betrayals in cinema history, and it's just tucked in there.
And the characters do behave the way you'd expect them to in ancient Rome. Paul Giamatti's Tom Duffy is the conniving manipulator, and a sign of where Meyers is unwittingly headed. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Paul Zara is the mentor figure who leans heavily of loyalty and carries a heavy hand if he needs to. Marisa Tomei's press figure Ida Horowicz plays that opportunist mistress committed to self-serving survival, and it's a wonderful small performance from her. And Evan Rachel Wood's Molly Stearn plays the dazzling heiress and skillful beauty in service of her masters, and she really is quite fantastic in the role here, despite the machinations of the plot rendering her performance somewhat useless. Her ultimate purpose, when revealed, isn't at all believable, and the film falters from that unbelievability.
George Clooney is oddly a weakness to the cast, as he seems so preoccupied with the job of director. He keeps himself in the back, as well he should, but he forgets that he still needs to deliver his most. He has precious little time to do so. But to his credit, Mike Morris is pretty much the dumbfounded figurehead. More than an epitomization of "politicians are dirty", the character of Mike Morris himself is a skilled actor. By the end, all his belief systems seem insincere, despite the fervor he gives during his speeches. He's the idiot in the front seat, and the following he's received is based not on intent but strategy. But that's getting too political about it.
And then we get to Gosling's Stephen Meyers, who plays the straightforward loss of innocence out of seeking justice role. And Gosling does it just fine, but this is somehow his weakest work this year, even if it isn't weak at all. He's a great deal more magnetic and internalized in "Drive", and though "Crazy, Stupid, Love" is an absolute mess of a film, his arc of change offers him about as much as this film does. With this field, he's just a tad too evident, so he's on par with his comedic performance. Still, he knows where to bring the hammer down on his character. He knows where it counts, and it's all in that priceless puppy dog look.
The issue that I end up having with "The Ides of March", and one the frankly ruins the endgame of it a bit for me, is that it goes off the rails when the main problem of the story is raised. It's not that it's a bad move necessarily, but we are never given one scene that allows us to really believe that the plot point could happen. It's the one I hinted about involving Evan Rachel Wood, and if you've seen the film, you know what I'm talking about. This film could've benefited from a less serious approach about it, and perhaps with a bit more subtlety backing it up. I may have been more into it, but as it is, I was surprised by how much I ended up receiving. Job well done Clooney, but you were so close to making it great.