Monday, October 10, 2011

The Ides of March: A Primary Fable

The Ides of March
Directed By: George Clooney
Written By: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willmon, based on the play “Farragut North” by Willmon
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, George Clooney, Evan Rachel Wood, Marissa Tomei, Jeffery Wright, Max Minghella, and Jennifer Ehle.
Director of Photography: Phedon Papmichael, Editor: Stephen Mirrione, Production Designer: Sharon Seymour, Original Music: Alexandre Desplat
Rated: R for the things politicians say off camera

            You can tell a lot about the different tone being set by The Ides of March from the play that inspired it, Farragut North, by just examining the titles. The original play, a sparse Mametesque back room politics piece, has a title that refers to the subway stop in Washington DC where all the big lobbyist and consulting firms have their offices on K Street, which is where politicians go to die when they never make it to Capital Hill. But in George Clooney’s take on the material, we instead have a more metaphorical title, one that dates back multiple millennia in politics. We essentially have a fable.

            And it is this sort of morality tale that Mr. Clooney, not only playing an Obama-esque politician (one that remained off stage in the play) but also writing and directing, wishes to tell. Mr. Clooney may be one of the biggest actors still today, but his craft as a director of cinema has become more refined with each film. He seems to dig into these old genres and stories that cold have easily been made in eras previous, doing little to update them, but make the movies he wants to see. Thus, The Ides of March is an often gorgeously crafted examination of the dirty little schemes that hide under the skin of every politician. 

         Expanded outward from its theatrical roots, the film is still a minimalist work of drama that Mr. Clooney knows how to suck us in with its shadowy sides that take place in sleek offices and dark alleys and bars. While Mr. Clooney may be the politician Mike Morris that’s running for office, spouting ideas of hope and change (posters hang that mimic the Obama-esque “Hope” and “Change” posters), the center of the film is instead Ryan Gosling as the young and ambitious Stephen Myers. Stephen may be young, but he’s a genius when it comes to creating the right platform, and has the tools to win the Ohio primary against Morris’s opponent. But is the man and the message enough? Meyers finds himself in a game of odds, working for a win-at-all-costs political advisor played by a smug and foul-mouthed Phillip Seymour Hoffman, while being tempted by fate to work for the opponent by his advisor, played by Paul Giamatti. To top that, he’s also got to handle a young intern (Evan Rachel Wood) who has got his eyes on him, tempting his multiple fates. 

The Ides of March goes through a lot of different twists and fates, and the film becomes genuinely dark and disgusting as the characters begin scraping at the bottom of their souls in hope of self-preservation. By adding Morris as a character, Mr. Clooney (who co-wrote the script with Good Night and Good Luck co-writer Grant Heslov and original playwright Beau Willmon), the film is able to contrast the irony by letting us see the promise of real change to the dark cold reality of what these men really think. It also doesn’t hurt that Mr. Gosling, much more naturalistic and emotional here than his more methodical work (see: Blue Valentine, Drive) can be most charismatic and totally endearing while later cold and lifeless, fraught with revenge. Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Giamatti also make the most of their pitch-perfect blood-sucking roles, and perfect these type of ugly men roles (Jeffery Wright, who makes a small appearance as the governor of Ohio, makes the most of his small dirty role as well). 

But what makes The Ides of March so appealing is how effective Mr. Clooney has become as a director into sucking you into his dark dirty world. Mr. Clooney has often been around politics, and you can tell how he understands the world by the sharp colors that form his world that eventually tares through the film by adding more shadow (with no doubt help from director of photography Phedom Papamichael). The Ides of March may be a simple morality tale, but Mr. Clooney knows how to treat his material with the type of respect and honesty it deserves, using the inner workings of faces at every moment.

If The Ides of March does reach into melodrama and slight implausibility in its final third act (a twist not in the original play), it is because Mr. Clooney is more interested in the moral fable that he wants to bring to the table. Politics is a dirty game no matter the player, Mr. Clooney suggests. It may not be the most original message, but it’s one worth repeating as every generation searches for its next great leader.


Dan O. said...

This is entertaining even if suspense barely builds and pay-off revelations come with little surprise. Clooney, as a director, is also able to draw-out amazing performances from this whole ensemble cast. Great review. Check out mine when you get the chance.

Jim said...

The minute after seeing the film, I was like "I bet in the play adaptation, the candidate was never actually on stage." BOOM.

I know Clooney is a huge democrat, so I was pleasantly surprised/impressed with the way the film was very non-partisan and unbiased.

Random ide (I originally typed "side" and accidentally deleted the S and then couldn't bring myself to fix the amazing pun) note that Paul Giamatti's character reminded me of: isn't Duplicity an AMAZING film. I had it like No. 5 on my 2008 list. Incredibly underrated.

My biggest question of the film: What was stopping Clooney from just flat out telling the public: Jeffery Wright is blackmailing me to get a cabinet position! My opponent offered him one, but I won't stoop to such levels! Wouldn't that have made him a hero in the eyes of the voting demographic he's trying to capture?

Peter Labuza said...

Duplicity is excellent. In fact, Tony Gilory should stop doing Bourne 4 and do more comedies (or dramas—Michael Clayton is great as well).

It's kind of interesting to see how this film would play with a Republican candidate (I wonder if the original play spells out the candidate's politics so easily), and, in today's day and age (or Cain train), it would have the same effect.

I think he does it for the same reason he could have came out and said "I had sex with the intern,"—for all his honesty it would kill his political career.