Clooney Wins With Old-School 'Ides'
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
George Clooney clearly thinks it's a shame that they don't make 'em like they used to, because a good half dozen of the films he's been involved in over the past five years, either as an actor, co-writer or director -- or all three -- have been near-blatant attempts to recapture the glories of films and film genres from years past. Clooney's latest, "The Ides of March," which he directed, co-wrote and in which he plays a central but not quite the lead role, may be his most successful picture yet, bringing old-school quality and tone to content that plays as both up-to-the-minute and classically timeless.
A lean, clear-eyed, square-jawed, finely calibrated and lightning-bolt-vivid political thriller that recalls not just the great acidic tragicomedies of political manners (and lack thereof) such as "The Best Man," but also ferocious social satires such as "Network," "The Ides of March" manages to satisfy on those fronts without falling into any of the more predictable pitfalls of those genres. If anything, some viewers might find the picture a little, shall we say, withholding, as it depicts its ostensibly idealistic characters indulging in genuinely vile, backbitingly opportunistic behavior, without overtly inviting conventional judgment on them.
The picture, adapted by Clooney with his frequent writing and producing
partner Grant Heslov and playwright Beau Willimon, from whose drama "Farragut
North" this was adapted, begins with young presidential campaign hotshot Stephen
Myers (Ryan Gosling) waxing glib and slick
at a debate rehearsal, but this introduction is deceiving. Myers is a true
believer in his man Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney), an uncompromising progressive
whose stump speeches sound an awful lot like the stuff that Clooney himself has
been known to pronounce on talk shows. Various operatives surround Myers. Some
of them are savvy, consistent operators, like his veteran politico mentor and
boss Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the rival candidate's ferociously
Machiavellian spinner Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), and a dogged New York
Times reporter (Marisa Tomei). Others are young and
ambitious — Max Minghella's slick, eager numbers
cruncher Ben — or, what do you know, young and simultaneously starstruck,
flirty, naïve, jaded and too-knowing. That is where Molly, a young intern played
by Evan Rachel Wood, comes in. And her
seductive presence rocks Stephen's world in an expected way, and then in a way
he never expected, opening a door that reveals that the candidate he thought of
as a political knight in shining armor is just a man, and a politician, after
The picture moves with such purpose that it feels almost modular: Specific scenes don't just move the narrative forward; they offer specific set pieces showcasing the strengths of the cast members. They're all excellent, and the ever-outstanding Gosling expertly underplays while Clooney does a lot more than phone in his role as a man of spectacular charisma with a perhaps Wolverine-esque skeleton beneath that, despite the fact that he probably could phone in such a role. The film's structure is particularly generous to Hoffman and Giamatti, both cast to perfection as slob-savants who are rival masters of the same universe, a realm of high stakes, stale coffee and too many light cigarettes. Hoffman's speech defining his own ethos is a marvel of thoroughly lived-in world-weariness, while Giamatti's unique brand of controlled fury gets a spectacular workout in the scene in which he feels compelled to explain to Gosling just how the world works. As multiple ideals and players are sacrificed like so many pawns, what's supposedly "right" is so often thrown into the back seat by its characters that those sacrifices cease to seem emblematic of lost values. The straightforward perspective Clooney's direction adopts, combined with the clean compositional lines that he probably picked up a sense of from his frequent collaborator, director Steven Soderbergh, create an effect of near-objectivity that's more bracing than any overt moralizing could have been. The viewer is put into a position of seeing the story's tragedy as a function of what is just standard operating procedure in the real political world. As awful as the situation is, the film doesn't go on a crying binge about it. Clooney and company leave that to the audience, if they so choose.Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.
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