Friday, October 7, 2011

The Crushing of Hope: The Ides of March

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Putting both George Clooney and Ryan Gosling into the same movie seems like an almost comical abundance of riches, but within the context of the political drama "The Ides of March," it makes a lot of sense.

Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, press secretary to Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris, (Clooney), who is running for the Democratic presidential bid. No year is given, although it feels a bit like a time pre-Obama. The focus here is the Democratic campaign, and Republicans get only passing mention.

Clooney the man is a staunch Democrat, and is very vocal about the causes he believes in. Of course, this has led to some call for him to run for office, and the character he plays here is, basically, what one would expect Clooney-as-presidential-hopeful to be: Unabashedly liberal and progressive, popular, charming, and swoon-worthily attractive.

So, it makes sense that such a candidate would have an equally charming and attractive press secretary. Gosling's Stephen is the face of the campaign, while the polar-opposite Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the campaign manager, Paul Zara, the man behind the scenes.

The story finds them in Ohio for the primary, with Morris up against an older and more middle-of-the-road candidate in a campaign run by Tom Duffy, a veteran manager played by Paul Giametti. Duffy sees the fire and ambition in Stephen, and convinced his candidate has the nomination in the bag, attempts to woo Stephen over to the winning team.

Except Stephen is a true believer, working for Morris not just because he thinks he will win, but because he believes he should win. New York Times writer Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), who is a friendly if constant presence on the campaign, warns Stephen that he is only setting himself up for disappointment, as politicians will, inevitably, fall far below the pedestals you place them on.

Eventually, Stephen's meeting with the opposing side, the much-needed endorsement of a governor his candidate can't stand, and a comely young intern (played by Evan Rachel Wood), threaten to topple the entire campaign, and it is in the playing out of these dilemmas that the movie reveals its ultimately cynical truth.

I haven't been a big fan of political dramas in the past. I find real-life politics so ridiculous, rage-inducing, and sad that I tend to stay away from fictional accounts as entertainment since they so often just pale in comparison to the insanity of real life. "Ides" suffers a bit from that problem. At many times throughout the film I found myself thinking what we are actually facing as a country, and the trials facing the current administration, are more dramatic and intriguing than anything a writer could come up with. And the movie's placement in a world free of Obama and Tea Parties is kind of a distraction.

But Clooney the director is able to build up the suspense, and present what backstage politics may be like in an entirely believable way. What's missing here is a bit of levity. Clooney the man is very funny, and that sense of humor has found its way into almost all of the movies he's directed. Apart from the film's terrific opening, in which Gosling riffs at a debate sound check, there is not much humor, or a feeling of off-the-cuffness, to be found here, and as a result, much of the movie feels very stiff.

The film is based, for the most part, on a play called "Farragut North," and some of that theatricality remains. Most of the action takes place in hotel rooms, campaign offices, buses, and private jets, giving the proceedings the claustrophobic feeling that is probably inherent in any campaign. (You may be traveling the country, but you're really only seeing the insides of boring buildings in the process.) This basis in theater also means it is an actor's film; the movie is its dialogue and actors, and thankfully the cast here is outstanding all around.

Ryan Gosling isn't a showy actor, and I think he gets guff for that, with some critics equating his delivery to mere mumbling in the Brando vein. But I think it's much harder to emote internal anger than it is to scream and throw things, and by the end of "Ides" Gosling's Stephen is full to the brim with suppressed rage. The movie is nicely bookended with scenes featuring close-ups of Gosling, and his performance in both is a picture perfect portrait of the crushing of hope.

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