Monday, January 16, 2012

On DVD: "The Ides of March"

“Mike Morris is a politician,” the reporter (Marisa Tomei) tells the junior campaign manager (Ryan Gosling). “He will let you down, sooner or later.” That idea seemed particularly timely as George Clooney’s The Ides of March was rolling into theaters last fall; the picture is steeped in iconography and language that echo the 2008 Obama campaign (from the candidate’s Shepherd Farley-style campaign posters to mentions of “drinking the Kool-Aid”), and seemed aim squarely at a liberal audience that did, in fact, feel let down by a President who seemed, as Clooney’s Mike Morris does, like he would “make a real difference in people’s lives.” There’s an interesting movie to be made about that, but The Ides of March does not turn out to be that movie. It flirts with relevance, but is ultimately a fairly standard political thriller—albeit one made with a sense of smooth, professional craftsmanship.

Clooney’s story (which he scripted with Grant Heslov and Beau Willmon, from Willmon’s play Farragut North) is set during the week of the Ohio primary race for the Democratic presidential candidate, which has basically come down to a two-man contest between Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell), whose campaign is run by shrewd Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), and Governor Morris (Clooney). Morris’s campaign manager is longtime operative Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman); Stephen Meyers (Gosling) is his number two man. The decisive race in Ohio is close, which much riding on who will get the endorsement (and delegates) of Senator Franklin Thompson, who is angling for a cabinet post. In the midst of all of this, Stephen begins a campaign trail romance with intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), who turns out to be the daughter of the head of the DNC. And then things get complicated.

The film’s early scenes are its best. The script talks plain and names names, throwing around smart political talk; Meyers and Duffy’s conversation about learning to how to play the game from Republicans is sharp and lucid, while Morris’s comments from the stump about taxation and “socialism” (as well as Zara’s crack that the Republicans “can’t find a nominee that’s not a world-class fuck-up”) are tartly timely. Though some of the details of the campaign stretch credibility (no candidate could proclaim himself as indifferent to religion as Morris does and actually survive a primary for either party), its portrayl of primary politics and their backstage byplay feel authentic; a line like “I don’t care if it’s true, I just wanna hear him denying it” sounds less like Stephen Meyers and more like James Carville. Gosling and Wood’s two-scenes have a nice zing to them (reminsicent of the screwball comedy homages in his underrated Leatherheads), Clooney’s offhand sense of humor is disarming—see Hoffman and Gosling’s offstage compliments after the first debate, or the business with Wood and Gosling’s tie the morning after their first date—and he draws out some nice directorial flourishes, like the way he handles a late scene with Hoffman going into an SUV.

Every member of the cast is utterly convincing. Clooney’s smooth persona has rarely been better employed—both his playful charm and his steely directness. Gosling gets a good, hard arc to play, and he wails on it; the speed which his idealism loop-the-loops into cynicism is dazzling (watch carefully how he tells Wood “I hope not”). It’s a memorable turn, even if he calls up a wide-eyed, manic look that will make Drive viewers fear he’s about to break out the hammer. Hoffman gets a showcase scene in his hotel room, a footlights monologue that betrays the film’s stage roots, but he’s so compelling you don’t notice the scaffolding; the way he pivots from cool contempt to utter rage is what good screen acting is all about. Wright is underused, but Clooney juggles the rest of the ensemble cast with ease.

For all of its trimness and vitality, the trouble with The Ides of March is a lack of ambition. It feels, for the first half or so, like they’re really tapping into something all but impossible to articulate about the disappointments of the last three years, or (better yet) about the futility of the political system in general, as it exists right now. The picture edges right up to those ideas, but then retreats into wild-eyed, Clinton-era conspiracy theories. It moves into rather predictable potboiler territory, and that’s a shame—even if it is a good, well-executed potboiler that hits its marks dutifully.

"The Ides of March" is out tomorrow on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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