Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Et tu, Clooney? THE IDES OF MARCH

George Clooney’s fourth film as director is The Ides of March, a modern political drama with the look, tone and score of a thriller. It features tense conversations between men in suits, always attempting to position themselves with their words, scheming, shifting, and weighing the consequences of each word and every thought. It tells us that good people and bad people alike get sucked into the gamesmanship that is running for public office until the difference between the two is next to nonexistent. There are only politicians.

Centered on a high level campaigner (Ryan Gosling), the film shows us the behind-the-scenes machinations of a run in a presidential primary. This man is an idealist and a pragmatist. He believes in his cause and he believes in his candidate (George Clooney), a sitting governor. He reports to the candidate’s campaign manager (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a weary and shrewd man who values loyalty above all else. Loyalty to ideology or even to coworkers is not the kind of loyalty he holds in such high esteem. No, he considers loyalty to the campaign the end all be all of political life.

His counterpart (Paul Giamatti) in the campaign of the main competition is similarly gruff and slimy, ready to throw anyone under any bus. He makes decisions that ruin lives and we’re supposed to dislike him. But what about our guys? They wouldn’t be so cold, would they? Greedy negotiations with a Senator who has dropped out of the race (Jeffrey Wright) and a brewing scandal involving a pretty young intern (Evan Rachel Wood) try the moral mettle of the protagonist and throw harsh light onto the dirty deeds that go on in dark backroom deals. True to its namesake, The Ides of March contains plenty of backstabbing. It’s a drama of disillusionment.

The film has a kind of frostbitten cynicism. It’s covered in impressive craggy displays of wounded chilliness, but scrape them away and what’s underneath is stale. It’s all too easy to point at politics and politicians and issue easy scorn. “They’re all nice guys,” says a reporter, a small role played by Marisa Tomei, “but they’ll always disappoint you.” This is an awfully easy thesis to prove, and the film sets out to prove it well. The oldness and obviousness of this sentiment doesn’t make the film less relevant, just less inherently compelling, especially when there is an almost uncanny-valley level of disregard for real-world political references. This is a film that has just enough in common with our current situations (and a few select pundit cameos) that everything it doesn’t address, even off-handedly, creates a distancing effect. We don’t even get to meet the competition, or even anyone from the other party. In our world, campaigns are a noisy buzz machine surrounded by gossip and megaphones. Here, things are strangely isolated for narrative and thematic simplicity.

It’s a good thing, then, that the performances make up for the void left by such thematic posing. Gosling is a bit of a blank here, a functionary who fills the role of increasingly disenchanted political operative. But the characters that surround him are terrifically complicated, lived-in performances from a collection of some of our greatest character actors. Clooney has the right combination of movie-star looks and gravitas of presence to look like a presidential candidate. He also has the depth in his eyes to play a man who can carry deep secrets without ever once letting on the extent of them. As the operatives and politicians that move along the plot, Hoffman, Giamatti, and Wright are pitch-perfect jargon machines that open up to reveal cold personal politics that are chilling in their icy logic of naked careerism.

Each character gets a moment when they can plunk down in the middle of a scene and deliver the kind of monologue that causes my ears to prick up, the better to hear every word. These are fine moments superbly performed, moments that betray the film’s origins as Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North. Adapted by Willimon, along with Clooney and Grant Heslov, The Ides of March fits in comfortably with Clooney’s other directorial efforts. Like the paranoid showbiz thriller Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the black and white docudrama Good Night and Good Luck, and the mothballed screwball comedy Leatherheads, this latest film has a stylistic and thematic connection with the past. Like the cynical political films of the 70’s – Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, Robert Altman’s Nashville Ides marches to its own glum drum. What it lacks is the same sense of vibrancy, of discovery, of a looseness and reality to its disgruntled surprises. It ticks along with wonderful performances and tense moments, but it never really gathers the pessimistic reality it aims to accrue. When the film ended, though I had been entertained and distracted, I was still waiting to be told something that would surprise me. 

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