Review: The Ides of March

The Ides of March is a perfectly acceptable film that takes the easy way out. It seems designed as Oscar bait, and it looks good and has a lot of fine actors, but there’s something missing. It’s a movie ostensibly about politics that says nothing about the political process.

George Clooney, who directs, plays a Democratic presidential candidate. By the time of the Ohio primary, which is on the date of the title (which also refers to political skulduggery, minus the knives, in 44 B.C.) the race is down to two candidates. Since Ohio is an open primary, conservative Republicans are urged to vote for Clooney’s opponent, who is seen as less electable. This is a bit of a fantasy, as Clooney’s first statement as a candidate in the movie is that he is not a Christian, something that would doom any real candidate. This is the kind of wish fulfillment of liberal screenwriters that characterized The West Wing.

Clooney, who is a peripheral character in the film, is managed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a crusty old pro, and Ryan Gosling, a young hotshot. Clooney’s opponent is managed by Paul Giamatti (giving another performance where he wheezes most of his lines). Giamatti asks to meet with Gosling to try to seduce him to come over to his campaign. This sets off a chain of events that snarls everyone, including a young intern (Evan Rachel Wood).

There’s some good stuff here, but I didn’t believe most of it. I have no idea what goes on in a political campaign, but it didn’t ring true to me. For one thing, I had trouble with Gosling. I don’t have anything against him as an actor per se, but I noticed something here. When he’s playing uneducated characters, such as in Blue Valentine or Drive, his vocal technique seemed correct, a kind of streetwise diction. But here it’s the same. A political operative, it seems to me, would be from a top school, and wouldn’t sound like he was pulled out of an episode of Welcome Back, Kotter. You can’t use the same voice as a psychopath from Drive and a campaign manager in The Ides of March. Also, Gosling’s so-called brilliance is never on display in the film. Everybody says he is, such as the scene with Giamatti, who tells him how wonderful he is. It’s telling, not showing.

I also had trouble with the central conflict. Clooney is involved in a scandal that Gosling knows about. I won’t go into details, but it’s the kind of scandal that history has seen before and struck me as totally unoriginal. I’m not sure that, in its earliest form, it would have ruined a candidate. Strangely, it reminded me of the film Easy A, in which a high school girl’s reputation is ruined because people think she had sex. Not in this era, people.

But I do give the film a thumbs up, with reservations. Clooney gives an interesting performance. At first you think he’s playing to his type, a charming, slightly roguish liberal do-gooder, but Clooney gives him shading as the film goes along that surprises. A key scene between he and Gosling in a kitchen at the end of the film is crisply acted, written, and directed.

I also liked Hoffman, who plays a guy who has seen it all. It seems naive that a campaign manager would value loyalty, of all things, more than anything else, but I believed him when he said it. When things don’t go his way, his character accepts it as part of the game.

Where this film disappoints is that it lacks a big picture. One shouldn’t review a film for what it is not, but it seems to me that Clooney missed a chance here to make a statement about the insanity of the American political process. Instead, it’s simply a small study of a few characters. The film teases–it makes references to real political figures, and uses the imagery of Shepard Fairey’s Obama “Hope” posters, but aside from that I don’t see any parallel between Clooney’s character and Obama. I’m a big Obama supporter, but I see nothing wrong with a film taking subtle shots at him.

I did like some of the maneuvering that went on, that I do believe exists. Mostly this entails a senator from North Carolina (Jeffrey Wright) who dangles his endorsement to the highest bidder. That seems completely plausible to me.

My grade for The Ides of March: B-


About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

5 responses »

  1. Gosling was the weakest thing in Drive. And there were a lot of self-absorbed weak parts to that movie. And then I looked back and realized…he was eviscerated by Williams in Valentine, but it worked perfectly for the doomed pallor that hung over that movie like Obi-Wan’s cloak. He was the perfect foil for McAdams in The Notebook only because his lack of presence played perfectly for her abundant charm…he’s flown under the radar before, but Drive made it abundantly clear that he seems to very clearly be gliding along on something that DiCaprio and the late Ledger and Timberlake don’t need to rely on. Timberlake’s performance in the last scene of Social Network was better than Gosling’s entire Drive performance. Timberlake’s flinch from Garfield’s fake punch in the last scene is better than Gosling’s entire….anyway, I must go back and watch The Believer again.

  2. As I said in the review I posted in the “Opening in” topic – it’s a C+ for me. It’s reasonably well made, save for choices that screamed “inexperienced director”, and well acted – but it’s just so small in scope and not compelling or interesting enough. And I agree – some of it just seems off – doesn’t ring true.

  3. I thought this was a sort of near-great movie that nonetheless never quite came together, kind of dancing around the mark without being able to hit it. It’s got one great scene, the one in the kitchen between Clooney and Gosling, and it sets up a moral dilemma that is pretty compelling. It has a reasonably clear eye for the poltical process, and it’s central insight – that policy positions are almost completely irrelevant in elections, and in fact the more you try to focus on policy the more of a disadvantage you put yourself in – is pretty clear-eyed. And I admire that it has the courage to leave all of its characters looking bad at the end, except maybe Hoffman’s and Wood’s, who are of course the two that get burned the hardest.

    That said, the movie is like a pitcher who’s constantly on the edge of the strike zone but can’t get it over. Gosling’s character is very poorly defined, or maybe he’s just a bad actor. I thought last night that the role of a soulless weasel suited him well, but now I’m not so sure. Like JS said, we’re told how great he is and not shown, and I really think that’s a weakness; it might have helped the movie’s overall credibility a lot if it had shown me that it knew what being good at that job really means.

    A few other characters are equally ill-defined. I liked Jeffrey Wright’s performance and think there was really something there, but the movie short-changes him and cuts out what would have been his more interesting moments (like his conversation with Hoffman’s character, which occurs offscreen). Marisa Tomei is likewise good, but her role is very perfunctory. I also think this is the best Hoffman’s been in awhile, but I agree with JS that his character’s motivations don’t seem quite right.

    I’m not sure that, in its earliest form, it would have ruined a candidate. Strangely, it reminded me of the film Easy A, in which a high school girl’s reputation is ruined because people think she had sex. Not in this era, people.

    What? No major candidate could survive a scandal like this at that stage of the game. Not at a point in the campaign when it’s late and things could go either way. He would have been utterly ruined.

    Look at John Edwards. His political future was over as soon as his affair was aired out, even before we learned of all the subsequent seediness. In fact, if Clooney and his writers had really wanted to twist the knife, they would have given us some indication that Morris’s wife was a really popular figure with the Democratic base, like Elizabeth Edwards was.

  4. This is the kind of wish fulfillment of liberal screenwriters that characterized The West Wing.

    I groaned during the “this what the Republicans do…not us!” argument between Gosling and Giamatti. That’s the kind of dated, sanctimonious, self-deluding bullshit that gives good-natured Hollywood idealism a bad name. Take a look at the 2008 primaries and let me know how ethically superior our side is when in campaign mode.

    The Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay is quite bizarre.

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