‘The Ides of March’ showcases Clooney’s mastery of style (Review #2)

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The Ides of March

Directed by George Clooney

Written by George Clooney,  Beau Willimon and Grant Heslov

2011, USA

George Clooney’s fourth film as director epitomizes the terms ‘backroom politics.’  A thriller about a fictional Democratic primary in Ohio that is set more in bars, kitchens, and hotel rooms than onstage, The Ides of March takes its Caesarian title to appropriate ends, featuring a slew of Brutuses and Judases.

Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is a 30 year-old ambitious staffer for presidential hopeful Governor Mike Morris (Clooney). Working alongside campaign head Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Morris’ idealism rubs off on him – Stephen is convinced that Morris is the next president. With only days to go in Ohio and with Morris still showing a slight edge in the polls Stephen receives a puzzling invitation to meet from the head of the opposition campaign, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). All at once Stephen’s world of ethical politics starts to look naïve: his candidate’s morals are called into question, Duffy has an unscrupulous plan to push his guy over the top, and young intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) reveals a potentially campaign-ending secret.

Mr. Clooney, a vocal Democrat, takes a few small jabs at the Republican party, but most of The Ides of March is about infidelity, whether it relates to partisan politics, marriage, or friendship. Morphing fluidly from Pakula-styled paranoia, to fear-mongering duplicity, to intense character study, the film leaves very few of its cast in an innocent light. Supporting actors Marisa Tomei and Jeffrey Wright, as a ruthless Times reporter and blackmailing senator respectively, help to extend the critique beyond the spectrum of the immediate primary and to all the avenues of political deal making.

Ryan Gosling seems to channel his recent string of roles, including a taciturn getaway driver, a psychologically troubled real estate heir, and a blue-collar, struggling father into his part as Stephen Myers. Beginning backstage and looking to his superiors for the next move, Stephen ends the film in full close-up and looking out to the audience that he is ready to command. His evolution (or de-evolution if you prefer your politics clean) is a masterful performance and catches the actor at the top of his game. When, towards the climax of the film, a grim Stephen confronts his equally stone-faced employer, Governor Morris, it’s a moment as tense as it emblematic of generational torch passing. Mr. Gosling’s varied film choices and obvious talent are indeed reminiscent of a fine succession of parts that Mr. Clooney made famous in the early and mid-2000s.

Mr. Clooney is one of the better American directors working in a mainstream cinema at consistently using light to evoke the inner turmoil and mindset of his characters. In this way his visuals are reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s recent style, though Clooney’s is less pervasive and he is more willing to deviate from the one-note monochrome darkness of his contemporary. Consider the opening of The Ides of March, which features a whistling, happily jingoist tune against colorful, uniformly lit scenes and contrast that with much of the third act where cinematographer Phedon Papamichael lenses inky silhouettes and composer Alexandre Desplat’s score drips eerie tension.

The ending of the film, which shifts the spotlight and aesthetics dramatically from those of the opening, isn’t necessarily ominous as much as it is a meditation on unfortunate inevitability. The message of image and audio are staunchly at odds with one-another in the final shot: we are treated to words of idealism against a view of the embodiment of dirty politics. This contrast is summation of the entire film, where message is secondary to whatever-it-takes ladder-climbing.

Neal Dhand

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