The Ides of March (Multiple Reviews)

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By John H. Foote & Anna Belickis

Foote (***)

George Clooney more than proved himself as a major directing talent with his sublime study of fifties television in Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) which earned the likable actor Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Producer and Co-Writer along with a nomination from the Directors Guild of America. The actor has always been so much more than just a movie star, making it clear he wants to do important work, the sort of work he grew up on in the seventies. Citing Alan J. Pakula and Sidney Lumet as strong influences on his career, you can feel the ghosts of the seventies in his best work, either as actor or director. His brilliant work in Michael Clayton (2007) recalled the finest sort of performance in a Lumet film, while his light touch in Up on the Air (2009) until it crashes down on him, was equally reminiscent of Paul Newman’s best work through the decade, or even Jack Nicholson. Clooney has the goods to be a major actor, major director and movie star, and people genuinely like the man. Hell I like him and I have only ever interviewed him! He smiles often, jokes incessantly, and does not take himself all that seriously until he gets serious about his work. Then the man is serious.

Working as actor, director and co-writer again for The Ides of March, he gives audiences a sharp, sometimes electrifying political film dripping with behind the scenes politics that are coated with acid and toxins. I was reminded of The Candidate (1972), though I think The Ides of March is a more powerful work, with more to say about what is wrong with American politics. More than anything else the film explores what good men will do to attain power, and that senators, governors and even Presidents are often, like Caesar, betrayed by those closest to them.

We are plunged into the thick of the Ohio primary where calm, collected, confident governor Mike Morris is expected to win the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. Morris has it all: good looks, intelligence, and a strong staff behind him, guiding his every move, making the right suggestions to him, and helping him when he falters. His tough-as-nails campaign manager Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is reasonably confident of Morris victory, along with his press secretary, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling). Meyers is a smart young man using his charm and wiles to fast track his way into the White House, which a victory with Morris will permit. Smart enough to know his charms will work just so far, he plays no games with a sharp New York Times reporter, Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) who is digging into Morris and looking for a story that could shake up the election.

When Myers takes a meeting with rival Pullman’s campaign manager, the insidious Tim Duffy (Paul Giamatti) he leaves as though he had met with the devil himself. Duffy makes clear that the lead Morris is coasting along with is not as strong as it seems, and the man could be taken down. What stuns the young man is when Duffy attempts to win him over to the other side, to support, Morris chief rival for the nomination for President. Eventually, each comes face to face with their greatest fears. We gain a greater understanding for how far the nominees and their staff will go to secure the nomination, which could allow them to change the course of history. There is so much at stake for these people, that losing must be devastating. Consider Hilary Clinton losing the nomination a few years ago to Barack Obama. It seemed pretty clear whoever won the nomination for the Democratic Party was going to the President of the United States. Obama wins and we have a black man in the Oval Office, but history would have been made had Clinton won and placed a woman as President, right? The stakes are life altering not just for the people running, but for those who will come forward to vote for them.

The performances in the film are superb, beginning with Clooney as Morris, a decent man who believes he is the right choice for President. It seems odd hearing Clooney speaking Democratic values on screen when we know he is the major political player in Hollywood these days, but he does so as a character and not George Clooney. I believed him as a Presidential candidate because he created someone we would follow, someone we would vote for, someone we would be proud to have in the Oval Office. Seeing his work here and then the very next day seeing his astonishing performance in The Descendants convinced me that Clooney is one of the best actors in movies today, one of those rare birds able to transcend being an actor and becoming a movie star at the same time.

Gosling has a ways to go before matching the great actors of all time like De Niro, Nicholson, and Duvall.

Ryan Gosling is in danger of becoming overrated very quickly. The young actor looks the part, speaks the word, but never brings the sense of realism to the character the other actors have. There is something oddly artificial about the performance. He is good here, nothing more. He does the job the role required but brings little original to the part or the film as the older character actors do. For a lesson in making a role your own, watch Paul Giamatti as the quietly ruthless, world weary and vicious Duffy. The actor is brilliant as his eyes do not so much look at Myers as stare through his soul and pick him apart. Duffy knows more about anyone in the room than anyone else in the room, and he knows it. He wants his man in the White House and is not above dirty politics to make that happen. This is the sort of performance that could get forgotten come Oscar time but should not, it is that good. When he speaks he says what he has to say with so much meaning, so much darkness in each sentence. This is not a man you would want to get into a confrontation with.  Philip Seymour Hoffman is equally brilliant, and Marisa Tomei continues to evolve as one of the best character actresses in movies today. What a shame that Giamatti and Hoffman do not have more scenes together, because when they are onscreen they own the movie in every aspect. They inhabit their characters in every possible way as great actors do.

The dialogue crackles with a sense of urgency throughout the film, but I felt the picture began to lose steam and become, sadly, ordinary in the final third. There was so much going on in the first two thirds of the picture, so much that was exciting and it all sort of falls apart as we move to a predictable conclusion. Clooney directs with confidence, and gives us a fine film, but I must confess I expected a little more and so did the audience at TIFF.

The Ides of March arrived at TIFF a major Oscar contender, but left, well…not. Still an excellent film with superb performances from some of the best actors working in movies today. And damned if Clooney did not look, presidential.

Belickis (**½)

There are movies out there that introduce us to a reality we live in that we never knew existed. This is not one of them.
George Clooney’s fourth directorial feature tells the story of an idealistic young man who experiences the inner workings of a democratic presidential campaign and is taught firsthand what “dirty politics” are all about. Based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, we are shown the ugly truth behind his profession. The problem with this movie is it forgets that we aren’t blind to what politics are all about, especially in a climate where these conflicts are front page news.

Clooney plays presidential hopeful Governor Mike Morris, currently located in Ohio where he is in the middle of a presidential primary. He wouldn’t be who he is without his team of staffers lead by his no-nonsense campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his intelligent press spokesman, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling). During the campaign they have to deal with the opposing democratic candidate Senator Pullman as well as his own team, which includes Paul Giamatti as the slick campaign manager, Tom Duffy. The fight between both candidates is admittedly realistic as we see the extents some will go to win.

The heavyweight casting is the movie’s saving grace. Gosling, Clooney, Hoffman, Giamatti, the underused Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood put on expert displays of the variety of personalities involved in a political campaign. It’s the script written by Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon that fails to thrill the audience. The film begins with the honest truth behind a campaign but slowly becomes rather commonplace. The movie begins to become sour when a predictable twist has a melodramatic turn and makes a mockery of real issues.

In an effort to be more “realistic,” the plot failed to be engaging. I came to be shocked and have my imagination about corruption and greed expanded to the limits. Instead, I found only an overuse of political rhetoric which seemed more appropriate for a prime time news station. Clooney made a movie in which the character we are supposed to identify with is too naïve to see what’s right in front of him. In our current politically-charged environment, he failed to recognize that the majority of us are not blind to the obvious corruption of our state. If the film had been more substantial about the conflict between ideals and reality, it would have produced meaningful and active entertainment.

The true star of this movie is Ryan Gosling, yet again giving a brilliant performance and proving that he is the next big thing. On the outside his character radiates charisma and confidence, swaying reporters to believe what he sells about Morris because he is a true believer in everything that his candidate stands for. Every situation and emotional exchange Clooney threw at him, he executed with excellence.

Clooney, likewise, is the perfect fit to play Morris. It has always been apparent that he has the wit and charm of a born politician. When Morris speaks you are inclined to listen. You can’t stop because what he has to say is so intriguing. What he speaks are the true lines of a politician; saying what they need to say to smooth talk voters and at the same time acting behind the scenes to keep the worst parts of their lives from being revealed.

But the strongest part of the cast lies in the battle to win between Hoffman and Giamatti. Hoffman’s character stands for loyalty and how that is the only thing that matters in life, while his opposing campaign manager believes in finding any way possible to weaken the other team. Both actors give powerful performances as this is no real stretch for them. Their part in the movie was to portray the different sides to politics, and both with opposite personalities and views did their part very well.

The two supporting woman consist of Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood. In a small role Tomei shines as a news reporter whose idea of a friend is someone who can give her a story. Tomei plays her character very well, presenting a woman who is extremely persuasive in her action to find a story and do everything she can to publish it, even if it means blackmail. Evan Rachel Wood plays the young intern to the Morris campaign whose importance may be a cover for something else. Wood is an actress with many talents and the character she is given doesn’t allow her to display those talents until one pinnacle moment. Both actresses do a wonderful job but won’t find their names on the nomination ballot when the Oscars come around.

The Ides of March doesn’t live up to its hype and is only worth watching for its incredible cast of actors. I have come to find this movie will go one of two ways; some will find it an honest masterpiece about politics and the world we live in or will find it a dull political narrative about the “shocking” world of manipulation, cover ups and scams that isn’t actually so shocking. This movie will either be forgotten when Oscar season comes around or be one of the numerous nominees up for Best Picture. If I had it my way this movie would not be up for contention, allowing more deserving films of 2011 to be recognized.

In the end, the movie left me disappointed.  My advice to you is to enter the film with no expectations of being blown away by the story, but if you’re interested in keeping up with valued actors it’s mostly worth it.