A first-class tale of political intrigue, The Ides of March offers a glimmer of hope to those people fed-up with the state of American politics, only to dash those hopes upon the jagged rocks of ambition, secrecy and betrayal. The story, based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, concerns an idealistic junior campaign manager who gets a crash course in pragmatism when he discovers the man he is striving to get elected is less than the knight in shining armour he appears to be. Directed by George Clooney, who also co-stars alongside a stunning ensemble cast, The Ides of March is a terrific political drama that growls with low tension and the cynicism of the disillusioned.
The Ides of March follows the campaign of Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (Clooney; The American) against Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell; Ocean’s 13) for the Democratic nomination for the Presidential race. Morris is a rare breed of politician; determinedly forward thinking and unwilling to compromise on his ideals, he is the kind of man who inspires faith and loyalty, even from men like Steven Meyer (Ryan Gosling; Drive), a young but talented junior campaign manager who works under Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman; Moneyball) doing everything he can to get Morris that one step closer to the Whitehouse. But as Meyer soon discovers, temptation lies everywhere in the political battlefield, be it in the form of the opposition campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti; Win Win) who aspires to lure Meyer over to the other side, or embodied by the flirtatious young intern (Evan Rachel Wood; The Wrestler), the keeper of a secret that could derail Morris’ entire campaign.
As Clooney’s fourth directorial effort (after Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck and Leaderheads), The Ides of March is confidently filmed and edited like the straightforward drama that it is. Much of the film plays out in the typical locales of the political thriller; by payphones, on public benches, in ballrooms and two-bit motels. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael fills the frame with passionless whites, blues and greys, lending the picture the cool, calculated aesthetic of a film by David Fincher (The Social Network) or Christopher Nolan (Inception). Clooney frequently transitions from scene to scene by dropping out the diegetic sound and letting the images march ominously on to the snare-drum tempo of Alexandre Desplat’s quietly propulsive score. Desplat’s music begins the film on notes of hope and determinism, like a kind of patriotic ditty. But as the story grows darker, the score becomes increasingly more corrupted.
Where The Ides of March really stands apart is in the quality of its actors. Perhaps because he is a veteran actor himself, Clooney has assembled a dream cast consisting of Hollywood’s finest performers, and gives them full reign to deliver Williamson’s scintillating dialogue with little intrusion. Ryan Gosling is magnetic as Meyer, a character considerably more verbose than Goslings’ nameless anti-hero in Drive, but who exudes the same charming confidence that masks cold-blooded capabilities. Clooney finds the perfect man to play Governor Morris in himself; few actors would be better suited to the role of a charismatic politician capable of inspiring genuine hope, only to be ultimately revealed as susceptible to the same human failings as everybody else.
Meanwhile, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are typically brilliant as the two duelling campaign heads; their one scene together, all too brief, crackles superbly. Similarly, Giamatti’s covert scenes with Gosling’s character bristle with Machiavellian intentions, while Hoffman’s mid-film monologue about loyalty reminds us why he is perhaps the best character actor working today. Evan Rachel Wood oozes sexuality, but also deliversher weightier dramatic dialogue with skill. Even the most minor roles are filled by top notch performers, including Marisa Tomei (Crazy, Stupid, Love) as a hardnosed political reporter, Jeffrey Wright (Source Code) as a conniving senator, Max Minghella (The Social Network) as a junior member of Morris’ campaign team, and Jennifer Ehle (Contagion) as the governors devoted wife.
Politics is the game dominated by the ruthless ambition of a few. For all the tension wrought by the chess games these men play, the stakes offered in The Ides of March are not lives, but careers. As one character points out, it makes very little difference to most everyday people who actually gets elected. It’s a sentiment that rings miserably true as Meyer’s completes his Godfather style coup, even as Morris delivers a televised speech about the importance of personal integrity. How bleak. As another character remarks, a long stay in politics will leave you jaded and cynical. The fact of the matter is, everyone in this film: Morris, Pullman, Thompson, Zara, Duffy and Meyers himself; they’re all in the same party. They’re meant to be on the same side. Yet for all their inspiring words, every one of them sells out their ideals and their allies for a chance to get ahead. One hates to imagine the depths they’ll sink to when they’re facing off against their enemies.