George Clooney’s adaptation of Beau Willimon’s Farragut North is an intricate examination of motivation, morality, and ambition that unfolds into a depressing picture of politics and human nature and of the inescapable corruptive influence one has on the other. Ryan Gosling fronts the picture as the ambitious yet idealistic campaign manager who believes his candidate is both morally and practically the right man for the democratic presidential nomination. Clooney is that man, a suave and erudite governor whose relative youth and energy resemble that of a real life 2008 democratic nominee. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the campaign head as well as Gosling’s boss and together they set their strategies against their rival campaign manager Paul Giamatti. Evan Rachel Wood is the intern who accidentally gets caught up in the middle of their cut throat dynamics and Marisa Tomei’s reporter is only too happy to throw fuel on the fire so long as she gets a couple of comments on the record about how hot it’s getting.
The Ides of March is slow burner heaven for those with a taste for the best political thrillers. It teases out the potential crises of character that exists at the seat of all our personal ideologies through a mature and levelled examination of the modern politician and the machinery s/he uses to get her/himself elected. Clooney’s initial ideal of a political saviour is pulled at and then scratched at, so that the audience, through the eyes of our lead character, are given the same cold chills (followed closely by just plain coldness) which Gosling’s idealist experiences. The script is more than happy to let the players move the story forward in the initial stages so that the emergence of the plot feels organic and it’s development coalesces with the personalities of those players. The dialogue is both sharp and witty and nearly always resists the temptation to become bigger than the drama. But it’s the character writing that gives the story so much substance. The people in this film feel real, their ambitions are brazen, their motives petty, and they are all prone to error. Yes, it’s a depressing picture of humanity but in the context of this type of story, it’s probably pretty accurate. The writing isn’t perfect as the final act culminates in a relatively clunky manner but the lead up and indeed remainder of the film is so sophisticated from a slow burning dramatic point of view, that this one misstep matters little.
Naturally, the actors respond to this clarity and so they become the principal reason as to why a film with no traditional forms of suspense remains enthralling throughout. Though always entertaining and usually better than good, it’s nonetheless great to see Clooney take on a genuinely complicated role even if his character must necessarily loom large in the background for most of the film. Gosling takes a break from the more somber/comatose kick he’s prone to these days and gives us a young go-getter full of personality and energy. It’s a reminder of how good a performer he is because at the end of the day, it’s the ability to be real yet distinctive that is the mark of a great actor and that’s exactly what Gosling does here. Of course, he is surrounded by a wealth of talent from the heavy weight division of the acting world. Regardless of the gold statuettes sitting on their respective mantles (because they too seldom reflect genuine acting talent), these are the cream of the current crop of Hollywood’s A-list and they seem to relish the opportunity to play with such meaty roles and not have to do anymore than 7-10 days of acting in the process. No one actor stands above the other as all are outstanding. OK, at a push, one could point out that Seymour Hoffman’s vengeful and paranoid turn is particularly nice to watch.
Clooney’s direction has always been impressive and while more low key than his previous Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck, it’s also a more quietly confident shift of work. His ability to key in on the exact tone of a scene stands out here as everything from the set design to the lighting seems right at all times. Through his patience and Alexandre Desplat’s gripping score, a low thud of inevitability beats through the second half of the film rising imperceptibly to create an engaging tension. This is a difficult craft to master and critical to a drama such as this one.
The Ides of March may have all sorts of commentaries running through it that speak to the current political climate in the US and indeed Clooney’s own sentiments but as a straight-up drama, it stands head and shoulders above most of its contemporaries. If it does little more than tell an engaging story, it at least acts as a reminder of the class that defined the genre in its heyday.
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