MOVIE REVIEW: The Ides of March
Starring George Clooney, Ryan Gosling and Marisa Tomei
The opening sequence of George Clooney’s effective potboiler The Ides of March, itself a tactile example of restrained genre filmmaking, wonderfully conveys the deceptive nature of our current political process. Lifted up by a mechanized podium into a black void, young Democratic hotshot Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) remains obscured until a single spotlight illuminates his face. Stephen mutters a few words into a microphone for a necessary sound check before reciting parts of a speech his candidate Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) will give later that night. The spoken excerpt is powerful in theory, introducing the idea of Morris as an Obama-like champion for tolerance and change amidst an intense and divided American landscape. But like so many one-sided conversations in The Ides of March, Stephen’s words are completely empty in practice, idle promises written in water.
Most films about political machinations chart the death of optimism and the realization of moral compromise, and The Ides of March spins this familiar record with a particularly problematic air of self-importance. Stephen’s gung-ho idealism, initially expressed when he tells a hard-nosed journalist (Marisa Tomei) “Morris has to win”, feels like a childish demand swimming in an ocean of adult complexity. Stephen’s ranking superior, a chain-smoking pragmatist named Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman), becomes his ideological opposite in this regard. A seasoned cynic who claims to value nothing above loyalty, Paul will do anything to win, including muckraking and shady backroom deals. Stephen’s wide-eyed optimism doesn’t stand a chance against this kind of power; a disheartening thought to say the least.
Despite its thematic bluster, Clooney’s film is invigorated by the power of individual moments, the devilish details of each character’s subjective experience. We can feel the weight of key decisions, like when Gosling hesitates to tell Paul he’s secretly met with the opposing candidate’s chief of staff (Paul Giamatti), a betrayal that fractures the thin ice of this already fragile setting. This motif grows more intense as the stakes grow larger, culminating with Stephen’s sexual dalliance with a younger intern (Evan Rachel Wood), embroiling them both in a complex scandal that threatens to destroy the whole campaign. Thankfully, Clooney never sensationalizes the material, instead lingering remotely on his lead character’s many missed opportunities for closure and redemption. The entire narrative challenges Stephen with moral choices, tipping him further into the abyss like a fated domino falling into place all the while foreshadowing his potentially lonely future in the D.C. big leagues.
It’s fitting then that the only markers of truth in The Ides of March are the cold, noir-infused images of wintry Ohio and the occasional facial expression of a politician caught in a lie. We assume nothing is as it seems going into a film like The Ides of March, but what’s surprising is how Stephen’s experience with themes of corruption and guilt manage to feel terribly personal and pervasive at the same time, deep within the fabric of our current state of the nation, There’s no place for moral virtues like compassion, understanding, and mercy here, and all become frozen solid under the façade of ideological inspiration. By the end of The Ides of March, deception is no longer a decision or a choice but a damning inevitability, revealing in dirty detail how the art of perception can turn any hint of reality into a lame duck affair.