The Ides of March
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 19th February 2012
Fresh from goofing about in the tear-jerking The Defendants, George Clooney is back, this time directing, co-writing and starring in a political thriller that has you wound as tightly as its characters right until the end.
Clooney plays Democratic Governor Mike Morris, presidential hopeful in the primary stages of his race to the White House. It’s a two-horse race, and interestingly we don’t see the other horse except in sound-bites on television – because this is Morris’s contest. We see his campaign office, peopled by bright-eyed young interns, and watch two cynically experienced campaign managers (the typically excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti) play everyone like the strategists they are.
Wisely, however, Clooney doesn’t make it all about his character. For the centre-piece in this particular battle of chess is the young, smart and idealistic Stephen (Ryan Gosling), Morris’s brilliant communications manager. Ethically clear-cut – he will only “do anything and say anything” for that which he believes in – Stephen is suddenly embroiled in a series of events that see him questioning his loyalty and priorities.
Clooney loves a political movie, having scored high with Good Night, and Good Luck his black and white, Oscar-nominated 1950s retelling of the McCarthy era. This story leaps forward sixty years, into a contemporary American tale which has some resonances with politicians we’ve seen come and go in recent years. But the story is almost arbitrarily “political” – Stephen’s choices, his treatment at the hands of merciless friends and colleagues, and his ensuing predicament could all have happened in any boardroom, TV studio or trading floor.
As with Clooney’s other thoughtful works, The Ides of March isn’t full of rousing action set-pieces, but burns slowly at first, establishing its characters’ motivations and then, one by one, tipping them upside down. With uniformly superb performances (Evan Rachel Wood’s feisty young intern is a pleasant surprise), perhaps the greatest bittersweet pleasure is in watching Gosling’s Stephen lose his idealistic sheen as the conflict intensifies. His subsequent trajectory from bishop, to pawn, to rook is gripping.
Coming in at a modest one hour forty, the sudden, seemingly premature ending leaves you wishing (for once) that we could follow Gosling’s journey even further into the depths of what must surely be Stephen’s own personal hell. Meanwhile, Clooney asserts himself a serious contender for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar next week.