The Ides of March: A Review

The Ides of March – Dir: George Clooney; *ing: Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, George Clooney

The buck stops nowhere

“You exude something, you draw people in… you play them all like they’re pieces on a chessboard and you make it look effortless. And people get scared of you because they don’t understand how you do it, and they love you for it!” So says Republican presidential primary campaign manager Tom Duffy (Giamatti) to the rival Democratic camp press secretary Stephen Meyers. But he could just as easily have been talking about Ryan Gosling, the actor playing Meyers, who has emerged in the last couple of years as Hollywood’s most intriguing young actor, charismatic, yes, but also uncanny in his ability to locate the moral and emotional ambiguities in his characters and make them relatable to the audience. And it is a quality which is terrifically well-suited to the character he essays here in director/co-writer Clooney’s quietly powerful adaptation of Beau Willimon’s 2008 play Farragut North, which was loosely based on the (truncated) 2004 U.S presidential primary campaign of Democrat Howard Dean.

Meyers is an idealist; he knows and understands that politics is a dirty game but he believes that the right man can make a difference, and to him that man is Mike Morris (Clooney) governor of Pennsylvania turned White House hopeful. While on the campaign trail to secure Morris the Democratic nomination in Ohio, Meyers grapples with the more dubious aspects of his work as he endures mind games from Duffy, specifically regarding a prospective endorsement from an inflential senator (Wright), and also comes to learn – and unlearn – a thing or two about his own motives and aspirations after a flirtation with a young intern (Wood) leads to potential disaster. In one of the film’s many dramatically subtle but solid scenes, Morris’ senior campaign manager Paul Zara (Hoffman) tells it like it is, suggesting to Meyers that his idealism is little more than a play for reflected glory, that his personal and political ambitions are enmeshed, while Zara himself may be cynical and compromised but there is integrity in his underhandedness because at least he is not on the make.

The Ides of March, despite Clooney’s well-documented staunch stance as a liberal, is not about the opposite spectrums of American politics at all. Rather, it is about the tarnished, and arguably misguided, notions of idealism in the modern political world. Is it realistically possible, the film posits, for a politician to win and still remain true to his original values and ideals? The same question is also pertinent, perhaps even more so, for the spin doctors, the people who work to transform politicians into candidates who will serve in positions of power. To this end, Clooney the director and Gosling his actor, skillfully conceal Meyers’ inner workings both from us as well as the other characters, so that we are always a little uncertain as to what nature of journey we are witnessing and party to – redemption or corruption?

There is a flaw inherent to the story of course. Knowing the world of politics as we do now in the new millennium, it is hard to buy that there are any idealists inhabiting it. But maybe that’s the point the film is making, maybe we aren’t supposed to buy it in the first place. And if we do, then part of the onus of how people behave once in power, is on us.

Cult: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) – Wide-eyed idealist James Stewart learns the ways of Washingtonians the hard way.

Current: J. Edgar – Leonardo DiCaprio stars in Clint Eastwood’s bio-pic of the feared and reviled long-time director of the FBI, arguably one of the architects of cynical, Right-wing politics in America.

Coming Attraction: The Iron Lady –  Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. Need we say more?

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