The Ides of MarchThursday, November 10th, 2011 9:43 pm—Film
The Ides of March (USA 2011, Drama), Writers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon; Director: George Clooney
I haven’t been paying enough attention to George Clooney as a filmmaker. He’s very good. I saw and really liked Good Night, and Good Luck, and heard great things about Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, both of which Clooney directed. But I guess his standout performances in a range of solid films, including Syriana, Michael Clayton (see the Michael Clayton review from October 2007), Up in the Air, Fantastic Mr. Fox (an incredible animated film) and the Ocean’s flicks, overshadowed his reputation as a director. They have for me, anyway, but no more.
From its opening shot through to its closing one, The Ides of March makes it clear that Clooney has a strong appreciation for the tools of cinema. And he wields them well, delivering a finely polished product that features a few neat twists and crevasses—if not in its story, than in its telling.
It’s hard for me not to compare The Ides of March to Drive (see the Drive review from September 2011), another film released this autumn that stars the phenomenal Ryan Gosling. While The Ides of March isn’t as inventive, creative or daring in its direction, it’s still far and away more sophisticated and on pitch than most studio fare, and suggests even greater work to come from Clooney.
The film spends a few pivotal days in the life and career of young Stephen Myers (Gosling), a press secretary—“the best media mind in the country,” in fact—working for Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), who’s running in the Ohio presidential primary. Stephen quickly finds himself in the thick of political scheming and scandal, involving the Governor, intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the opponent’s campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), and aided and abetted by reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei). His character is put to the test, and it isn’t long before he graduates from loyal idealist to vengeful cynic.
The Ides of March is based on the Broadway play Farragut North by Beau Willimon. (In one production, Chris Noth played Hoffman’s role.) I can see how the premise would work well on stage, but Clooney veers away from being overly theatrical by making full use of the cinematic mechanisms at his disposal. In the opening scene, in which Stephen preps the stage for one of the Governor’s speeches, Clooney highlights the showmanship involved in politics without betraying the platform of realism (as opposed to theatricality) that he establishes throughout the film. You’ll need to see the film to appreciate what I’m saying, but through the lighting, cinematography and editing, Clooney brings the viewer onside with Stephen in a moment that could be interpreted as fantasy, and then cleverly reveals how it fits into his everyday reality.
As is frequently the case when good actors direct, The Ides of March features fantastic work from exceptional performers. Tomei in particular creates a very thoroughly etched, interesting character. Hoffman and Giamatti are always great, and Gosling’s star just seems to keep soaring higher with each film he shoots. He’s so very good at hitting the nuances of every character he plays. I find him utterly mesmerizing to watch, much more for his craft than his admittedly handsome features. There’s a scene at the campaign headquarters, just after the fun hits the fan, when Stephen strides into the building and summons Molly into his office. Everything about him—from how Gosling walks, or moves his eyes, or even lifts a pen—perfectly captures the character’s motives, feelings and intentions. Great acting is in the details, and Gosling is impeccable.
But back to Clooney… Watching The Ides of March, I got the sense that he’s building to something pretty great. Not only is his filmmaking growing stronger, but he’s using it more and more as a means of voicing his own political leanings—a good thing, in my opinion. Critics of The Ides of March have argued that it doesn’t cover any new ground, as far as the ins and outs of politics. Perhaps not. But it does showcase exceptional talent—on the part of everyone involved, cast and crew alike—and is surely an important step along the way to many of its players perfecting their games. That makes it newsworthy in my books.