I’ve always been interested in watching actors evolve into directors, which is a career change that seems to work out more often than it should. While movie stars very rarely turn into major auteurs, they often manage to turn into highly competent helmers of meat and potatoes Hollywood productions. Clint Eastwood is obviously the archetype of this, having churned out solid films at an incredible pace for decades, but we’ve seen a similar career trajectory from other stars like Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, Warren Beatty, Ron Howard, and most recently Ben Affleck. The reason why movie stars gravitate so heavily towards traditionalist dramas and thrillers directed at middle-brow sensibilities is not entirely clear to me, but it may well explain why so many of the above mentioned actors have been so effective at snatching up Academy Awards the second they move behind the camera. I bring this up because I think George Clooney has very clearly been moving in exactly the same direction in his work directing films like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck. Clooney’s most recent film, The Ides of March, sends him down that path further but also displays even more competence in this regard than we’ve seen up to this point.
Though Clooney is highly prominent in the advertising, the film’s real star is Ryan Gostling who plays a junior campaign manager named Stephen Meyers who is working for a candidate named Mike Morris (George Clooney) who is in the middle of a tough Democratic primary in Ohio as the film begins. Meyers sees Morris as “the real deal,” a candidate who could really bring change to the country, a sentiment that elicits snickers from Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) Morris’ Senior Campaign Manager. It also draws snickers from the opposition’s Campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who doesn’t even think Morris will have much of a chance of winning the nomination after he enacts a deal to get the endorsement of Ohio’s popular Senator Thompson (Jeffery Wright). Meyer’s is disgusted by these machinations, but he’ll soon learn that these tactics can go both ways and are much deeper than he initially imagines.
The advertising for the film makes this look like a thriller, but that’s not entirely true. Mike Morris’ “dark secret” is not as spectacular as the film’s title suggests and the conflict in the film is smaller scale and more personal than what the audience is likely expecting. The film is really more of a procedural about what the political campaigns are like and how they can go haywire when secrets and personal agendas come into play. The behind the scenes details of electioneering mostly seem authentic and would have been interesting on their own even if there wasn’t a larger story on top of the canvas. Additionally, the film’s dialogue is truly excellent with each the characters speaking to one another with a crackling Mamet-esque repartee that’s enjoyable to listen to and not distractingly artificial either.
The film also sports an amazing cast spearheaded by Ryan Gostling, who gets a lot more to do here than he did in the film Drive. He is in movie star mode here rather than character-actor mode, so his work here isn’t necessarily as impressive as what he did in the films Half Nelson and Blue Valentine, but he does carry the film effectively and holds his own against some of the finest actors in Hollywood. Speaking of Hollywood’s finest actors, this film has the two preeminent character actors of our day: Paul Giamatti and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Interestingly, both of these actors have been cast into the same position in the two competing campaigns, making them the two sides of the same coin in both position and star power. Then of course there’s George Clooney who uses his natural star power and charisma to be incredibly convincing as a gravitas-laden Presidential candidate who could potentially inspire a nation.
The main criticism against The Ides of March seems to be that it doesn’t really have a profound political message at its core. A.O. Scott dismisses the film by saying “Politicians sometimes lie. If… that sounds like news to you, then you may well find ‘The Ides of March’ downright electrifying.” To this I’d point to the comparable George Clooney vehicle Michael Clayton, a film that didn’t really have to much insight beyond “Corporations sometimes lie” and yet it wasn’t really held up to the same standard. Granted, when you name your film after a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar you’re probably setting yourself up for rather lofty expectations but that doesn’t mean that this can’t be just as easily enjoyed as an excellently crafted yarn. That said, I do think that The Ides of March does go a bit further than that in its examination of the political landscape. In particular I think it captures a certain sense of disillusionment that has been prevalent on the political left as all the hope surrounding the 2008 elections seems to have been lost amidst all the usual political bullshit that’s existed in Washington for centuries. The conclusions that the film reaches are rather nihilistic, and that’s not necessarily productive, but I think it is an accurate depiction of how many left leaning Americans have felt in the last year or so.
***1/2 out of Four