Ides of March
Director: George Clooney
Starring: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Evan Rachel Wood, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei
Review: 3 stars (of five)
George Clooney is an interesting director, with an assured style behind the camera and an ability to get strong performances from well-cast actors. His latest turn in the director’s chair, continuing a fascination with public personas (as seen in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck), is entertaining, a bit cerebral and oblique in the telling, but ultimately a tale as familiar as the title Clooney chose.
The story of the film (based on a play titled “Farragut North”) is the fall from innocence of a brilliant young political strategist (Gosling), who is the number-two man on the campaign of a promising contender for the Democratic nomination (Clooney). In the beginning of the film, Gosling contrasts himself to the campaign’s top strategist (Hoffman) by painting himself as an idealist who must work ethically for a candidate he believes in, while Hoffman is an older, more cynical play-to-win veteran. Clooney plays a similar character as the candidate, one of the last two competitors for the nomination as the crucial Ohio primary looms. Clooney refuses to make distasteful deals that would guarantee him the nomination, even when the alternative is high likelihood of defeat.
Gosling is assured by a pleasantly jaded New York Times reporter (Tomei) that his candidate will eventually break his heart, and boy does he. At the same time he becomes disappointed in Clooney’s moral rectitude, he makes a strategic mistake of his own that gets him fired. Fueled by resentment, he tries to take his services to Clooney’s rival, but, thwarted, comes up with an even better way to save his suddenly ruined career. In the end, he has transformed himself into a peer, and mirror image, of the soulless Hoffman, and his fall from grace is complete.
Which is, you know, a really familiar character arc. Politics forces compromise, and in the end, those compromises cost you your soul. Betcha didn’t know that! So the film’s first failing is that, despite creating a convincing insidery vibe, the overall story doesn’t feel as though it’s telling me anything new about how the world—that world, my world—works.
Its second failing, at least from the perspective of commercial success, is to leave key character moments in this character story off-camera. We are in the room when Hoffman fires Gosling. Gosling is stunned, quiet. The scene cuts away, and later a witness to the event tells another character that Gosling went nuts, he was furious, raving, threatening to take down the whole campaign (and we know that Gosling has information that could do so, spectacularly). We next see Gosling approaching the rival campaign’s HQ, and he offers to provide his spectacular secret, so we presume that the report of his fury and threats was accurate. But we never see it on camera. We’re given the earlier moment, where learning that secret about his candidate breaks his heart, but this moment where his anger takes over and he begins to act not out of idealism but out of self-interest and vengefulness, is missing.
The title of the play, “Farragut North,” refers to the D.C. neighborhood where lobbyists end up—and that fate is presented as failure, as being turned out to pasture, at the least, and Gosling’s struggle, once he’s in crisis, is to “stay in the game” and avoid that fate. Clooney’s new title refers to betrayal, quoting, of course, Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” and the date on which Caesar’s trusted advisors stabbed him to death. In the film, there are a number of betrayals. Clooney betrays his ideals, politically and personally. Gosling betrays, or sacrifices, his. Hoffman betrays Gosling, arguably, which is what pushes Gosling to “the dark side” (and the fact that the storyline can so easily invoke a Star Wars reference might signal its ultimate simplicity). But ultimately, Gosling must be seen as the film’s Caesar, which doesn’t fit his character or his fate, making the title portentious but only vaguely linked to the story.
Gives you something to think about, though, as does such decisions as not showing us Gosling’s moment of rage, and letting other key moments, such as that heartbreak disappointment, play out silently on his expressive face. Clooney is not spoonfeeding us the story—making his direction superior to his material—and that is admirable. It’s one of the reasons that this quiet, tense film, with its interesting last-act reversals, rises above a fairly basic premise that some jobs will just chew you up and spit you out.