One has to give George Clooney credit as a director, writer and actor in The Ides of March, his adaptation of the play “Farragut North.” For a man who is as politically active and boisterous as he is, The Ides of March could be a film like nearly every other political thriller has been that’s come from politically liberal Hollywood: a leftist screed emphasizing one point of view. But he takes into unfamiliar territory as a film about a man discovering that the cost of success comes with a price one has to be willing to pay with one’s soul.
Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is the second in command for a campaign on the highest level: the Democrat Party Nomination for President of the United States. Underneath a political heavyweight (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Myers has found the candidate for whom he no longer needs the dirty tricks and tactics of his past: Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), a near saint of a man in the midst of the political battle of his life. Myers doesn’t need the dirty tricks: he’s found the right man at the right time and has become a true believer in the cause.
With a Senator (Jeffrey Wright) holding onto the piece of the puzzle he’d need to secure the nomination and potentially the Presidency, and Morris’s insistence on not trading major things for political power, Myers is in a quandary. When a burgeoning romance with a politically connected intern (Evan Rachel Wood) and a discreet meeting with the campaign manager of a rival (Paul Giamatti) lead to his world being shaken, Myers learns the hard way that appearances aren’t what they appear to be.
It’s a nuanced look at a subject from an unexpected source, as Clooney the director and writer are looking to show about the descent of a man as opposed to play partisan politics. This is Myers story and Clooney is apt enough to follow him through his personal discovery. The film plays it fairly even handed, despite having a candidate espousing most of the usual left of center politics Hollywood favors, and focuses on Myers the man. As he has his entire world shaken with the events of the film unfolding, it’s a transformation from him as a bit past an idealist but not quite the jaded politico he’s to become by the end. Clooney the director wisely lets Myers’ story be the main focus and fades to the back as the film’s star, as well, which says a lot about his confidence in the material.
Never given the best lines, Clooney the actor has a good but not great performance as the film mainly focuses on three actors pulling the strings behind the scenes. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti give strong, workmanlike performances as veteran political hands behind the scenes and give the film a sense of balance. These are actors who breathe life into roles they could sleepwalk through; there’s nothing that normally would provide them a lot of challenge but given supporting roles they do the most with it. For the most part this is Ryan Gosling’s film and he delivers in what should be an Oscar nominated performance.
Gosling is known for always bringing strong performances but Clooney gets a rather remarkable one out of him. A generation ago this would’ve been a career defining role for someone like Steve McQueen, using similar levels of dialogue and physicality, and now it ends up being another in a series of brilliant performances from Gosling. His change from being a committed ideologue to being the sort of man he detests in the beginning is a rather remarkable one and subtle; it’s in the way he talks and the way he moves from the beginning to the end. It’s a character transformation that is gradual and Clooney does a remarkable job of bringing it out of him. As an actor he steps back on occasion, allowing Gosling to shine as opposed to overpowering him.
The film’s problem, if you can call it that, is that it wades into similar waters from other genres but just turns the topical subject of politics into them. This is a film about how the grass isn’t always greener on the other side and that to get to the top of any cutthroat profession sometimes plenty of others have to get hurt, it just has a political aspect to it. It’s well done and engaging but we’ve seen it before. We’re emotionally invested in it because Clooney tells a great story and he has Ryan Gosling giving one of the best performances of the year but it’s not new, original or otherwise remarkable. This is a story of appearances and deception, and the implications therein, but the overall arc isn’t extraordinary enough to overcome the predictability of the film.
The Ides of March is a good film about the perils of politics but with a brilliant performance from Ryan Gosling that makes it a worthy view.
Director: George Clooney Notable Cast: George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamiatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei Writer(s): George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon based on Willimon’s play “Farragut North”