REVIEW: “The Ides of March” (***)

Posted by · 7:14 am · August 31st, 2011

Venice Film Festival

“I’m not a Christian. I’m not an atheist. I’m not a Muslim. I’m not Jewish. I believe in the American constitution,” intones a spiffily-suited and even fresher-faced-than-usual Ryan Gosling as the opening line of “The Ides of March,” George Clooney’s crisp, diverting and typically (even overly) studious political thriller.

Standing at the podium, he hesitates a moment — teasing us with the tantalizing possibility that he might launch into an even less rhythmic rendition of the rap interlude from Madonna’s “American Life” — before the camera pulls back to reveal the context of the rhetoric: he’s merely timing an address that his boss, a Brylkreem-slick presidential candidate played by Clooney himself, will deliver later.

It’s the first of several occasions where the film strips political speech down to its mere machinations, and where the mind of one character is filtered through the voice of another. It’ll come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Clooney’s work as a filmmaker and as an activist that “The Ides of March” takes a wearily disapproving stance on the manipulations and (mostly bad) manners of US politics, prizing the candid idealism of Stevie Meyers, Gosling’s gifted 30 year-old press secretary, over the more urbane truth-parsing of Clooney’s Democratic hopeful Mike Morris — loosely inspired, as in the play, “Farragut North,” from which the film is adapted, on failed 2004 campaigner Howard Dean.

Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov aren’t exactly subtle about setting the virtuously loyal young man up for a fall: “I’m not naïve!” Gosling insists over a drink with Marisa Tomei’s justly sceptical Gray Lady political reporter. “I have drunk the Kool-Aid! I genuinely believe he [Morris] is the only one who can make a difference!” The dialogue couldn’t be more nakedly, plot-servingly ominous if a time-code appeared in a corner of the screen to count down the remaining minutes of the first act. Will Morris turn out to be less heroic than his noble policy promises suggest? Will Meyers soon be taking a heavy-footed walk down Disillusionment Boulevard? Will Clooney’s silver-fox presidential barnet remain dashingly in place through thick and thin?

If you haven’t guessed the joint answer to all these questions, “The Ides of March” may hold more revelations for you than for the rest of us: for a film that affects a jaded, it-was-ever-thus air about the reality of dirty politics (that title isn’t exactly rich in ambiguity, either), the way it stares earnestly aghast at the characters’ hypocrisies and double-crossings is itself naïve at best, and downright disingenuous at worst.

It’s some trick to pull off acting both knowing and aggrieved, and Clooney’s line in irony is too self-congratulatory (and therefore self-defeating) to get there. Taking corruption as a given, we wait for the film to reveal stranger, more perverse details and consequences of the campaign process — not least given the intimate narrative radius of a single Ohio Democratic primary.

What we get instead is an absorbing, occasionally witty liberal suit-opera on “West Wing” lines that nonetheless holds its juiciest sub-plots on a leash. The storyline handed ensemble standout Evan Rachel Wood, lithe, snappy and eventually affecting as a bright young intern whose attraction to Gosling unwittingly jeopardizes all three principals’ careers, is initially the most promising of these, holding interesting implications about the longer ladder still reserved for women in politics — until the character is dropped in a datedly dismissive fashion that renders her entire arc a mere device. It’s not the only respect in which Clooney and Heslov’s  script resembles a highbrow Hollywood screed from the 1940s updated with some token references to the Drudge Report era. (For one thing, the film’s view of the media is decidedly quaint: Tomei appears to be the last surviving political journalist in the United States, while the internet is something people use to arrange booty calls.)

There’s crackling tension, too, between Philip Seymour Hoffman as Clooney’s campaign manager and Paul Giamatti as that of the fustier rival candidate, a brief glimpse of whom suggests a Democratic John McCain — with no Republicans to kick around, the narrative must find its ostensible enemies where it may. (It’s remarkable how much more attractive Clooney’s campaign team is than the other guy’s.) Hoffman and Giamatti are both on good, smart form, and an early cross-cut between the two, sweatily gritting their teeth in the wings as their candidates engage in debate onstage, previews an almightily entertaining schlub-off between them that the film never delivers. There’s an intelligence to the way the film lets such characters fade into the Cincinnati spring mist — so much in politics, one senses, ends with a whimper rather than a bang — but Clooney is still a little too light with the friction.

Instead, he concentrates his efforts on a showdown between Morris and Meyers, perhaps the two least jagged characters in the ensemble. Clooney’s role is smaller than the head-to-head marketing approach has suggested — one could indeed make a case for keeping his character wholly off-screen, as in the play — but there’s pleasure in watching the actor mine tiny crevices in his trademark glib facade; only Clooney could deliver the line, “This is a very sad day,” at the funeral of a colleague’s family member with a glazed half-smile on his face. Gosling is an appealing lead, but struggles to imbue Meyers with much of a personality beyond the ethics printed on his forehead: his blank-slate approach is fairly reasoned, but he can’t quite make sense of a character so simultaneously cynical and righteous.

The duel between these two ghost-men is resolved in a pleasingly terse, roundabout fashion that lends the film’s finale some genuine tang — though Clooney still can’t resist overcooking some circular ironies to the point where they aren’t ironic anymore, and Alexandre Desplat’s jittery, flute-heavy score and Phedon Papamichael’s over-underlit cinematography (Clooney’s evidently a more original stylist with a Robert Elswit by his side) crank the dramatics a little more eagerly than the script does.

It’s an intriguing enough close that we’re left wishing we could be let a little closer to these guys: their domestic lives are clearly as cracked as their politics, even if the film is only concerned with the latter. “You’ve got such great hair,” Morris’s wife (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Jennifer Ehle) whispers to him in the back of a campaign bus; it’s the only line in this entertaining but self-limiting morality play that anybody really seems to mean.

[Photos: Columbia Pictures]

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50 responses so far

  • 1 8-31-2011 at 7:30 am

    Matthew Starr said...

    This read like something less than a three star review. Are you perhaps being friendly like you were with Tree of Life?

  • 2 8-31-2011 at 7:33 am

    Nick Davis said...

    And we’re off! Wish this film sounded better, but given the relative pros and cons of Clooney’s other directorial efforts, this is about where I’d assumed we’d end up. Anyway, fab review, as always. You’re better than the people who make trailers at saying a lot without seeming to give away too many connections among the dots.

  • 3 8-31-2011 at 7:45 am

    Fernando said...

    So, any Oscar love for this? Directing? Clooney? Gosling? Will it even make it among the ten nominees? – although for some reason i’m guessing there will be 8 this year –

  • 4 8-31-2011 at 7:46 am

    JJ1 said...

    It also reads less than 3 to me.

    It actually sounds lesser than your 2.5 star (“I don’t consider 2.5 stars bad”) of ‘Midnight in Paris’ – to which, I agree. 2.5 is not negative in my books.

    But ‘Ides’ must have been a low 3 for you, huh? Regardless, great review, Guy – as usual.

  • 5 8-31-2011 at 7:49 am

    tony rock said...

    Don’t think you’re giving Gosling enough credit here. If his character is a “blank-slate” it has to be one of the better-acted blank-slates I’ve seen.

  • 6 8-31-2011 at 7:52 am

    kel said...

    From the trailer, it looked like Clooney as Supporting Actor is quite likely. Or, the nomination could go to the brilliant PSH who is shouting in the trailer and probably will shout his way to an Oscar nomination….is there any subtlety to his performance?

  • 7 8-31-2011 at 7:52 am

    Andrew M said...

    Great review Guy, even though it has dampened my hopes a bit. Has its Oscar chances lessen, or will other people find more in it, you think?

  • 8 8-31-2011 at 8:46 am

    Michael said...

    Your writing is exquisite Guy! I was kinda on the fence with this film, and despite your 3 star rating, the review itself has really deterred me from catching this movie as a “must-see.” I will probably end up watching it just so I am not out of the loop, but I have a feeling that my reaction will mirror yours pretty closely (political dramas are not one of my interests.) Love your coverage (and your tweet capsule reviews as well)! You are off to a great start.

  • 9 8-31-2011 at 8:48 am

    Matthew Starr said...

    Justin Chang (Variety) did not like it either and has similar complaints.

  • 10 8-31-2011 at 9:24 am

    John G said...

    “It’s remarkable how much more attractive Clooney’s campaign team is than the other guy’s”

    You probably wouldn’t know this from watching Hollywood films, but staffers wishing to surround themselves with good-looking coworkers stick right of the aisle as a necessity.

    I was a little worried this film might be overly liberal, but I adore The West Wing in spite of its politics, and if disillusionment is as important to the story as the trailer and your review suggest, Democrats might end up learning something here too.

    Paul Giamatti looked to be the most interesting character from the trailer and it sounds like he has a lot to work with. I can’t wait to see the movie.

  • 11 8-31-2011 at 9:24 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I’d just like to point out that Michael’s comment at #8 represents — wait for it — our 100,000th comment here at In Contention.

    Thank goodness it was a positive one! And thanks, everyone, for contributing to that number.

  • 12 8-31-2011 at 9:37 am

    Keith said...

    Great review, Guy, though it left me disappointed. I was hoping for a better film and showcase for its actors. A few other reviews I’ve read out of Venice came up with similar conclusions. I’m sensing Ides may not play as deep in the race as people thought.

  • 13 8-31-2011 at 10:06 am

    DylanS said...

    Excellent review, as always, Guy. I’ll be interested to see where I fall on this film. Your singling out of Evan Rachel Wood among what is a pretty hefty ensemble has me more confident in my prediction of her for a Best Supporting Actress nomination. She’s been a very good actress for a couple of years now, and she’s still very young. If the performance is a standout like you say, and the actors also take a look at her work earlier this year in Todd Haynes’ “Mildred Pierce” (where she gives a deliciously flashy performance executed very deftly, and the standout of that ensemble, as well) I think they’ll make the effort to finally recognize her.

  • 14 8-31-2011 at 10:08 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Regarding the star rating, this isn’t maths — it’s all relative, not to mention a little mood-dependent. The review, I hope, is what counts, and I like to think I’ve made it clear that the film is a successful entertainment even if it fails to be as provocative or searching as I’d like it to be.

    Regarding awards, you’d be better off waiting for Kris’s take, but it strikes me as a little too dry for the top races. If anyone from the cast gets attention, I think it’ll be Wood. No techs.

    Sorry for the rushed comment — between screenings.

  • 15 8-31-2011 at 10:42 am

    Rob said...

    yay Evan Rachel Wood!She’s way overdue. That clip they released with her and Gosling was really great. Can’t wait to see what she does. Sad you say her character isn’t fully rounded but it is a male written film ;) Sounds like she really ‘worked’ what she had to the fullest. I don’t know why some people have been predicting Marisa for so long….there’s been several reports that her part is small and non important.

  • 16 8-31-2011 at 10:58 am

    Joel said...

    Well, I can’t wait for this, certainly. The trailer had me sold from minute one. Glad you dug it, Guy.

  • 17 8-31-2011 at 12:19 pm

    AnnaZed said...

    Not sure where to post this, but (having found you only a few weeks ago) I have to come right out and say ~ this the best, the absolute best movie blog ever created in history, the best.

    Guy is a terrific writer. This: “…occasionally witty liberal suit-opera …” is, I am sure, completely spot on.

    My life has changed for the better and I now know everything, absolutely everything, about current movies so that when engaged in conversation I am knowledgeable and up-to-the minute without having to feign having seen all of the films … something which I would never do ~ but which has been known to happen.

    I love you.

  • 18 8-31-2011 at 12:20 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Sounds to me like Guy respects a lot of what he saw (positive critique), all the while … hoped/thought it would be quite a bit better at what it actually was (in a manner of speaking).

    Still psyched. Thanks again for that review, Guy. :)

  • 19 8-31-2011 at 12:57 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    AnnaZed, that’s an incredibly kind and flattering comment — thank you! I can’t claim that we know absolutely everything, but I’m so glad we’re useful to you. Hope you enjoy the rest of the coverage.

    Justin Chang (Variety) did not like it either and has similar complaints.

    I sat next to Justin at the screening, as it happens, but I swear I didn’t copy his homework.

  • 20 8-31-2011 at 1:24 pm

    MovieFan said...

    Great review Guy, where do you this performance ranks with Ryan Gosling’s best? Do you think he could get nominated?

  • 21 8-31-2011 at 2:00 pm

    Dana Jones said...

    Pretty much same question as MovieFan- Gosling’s performance… ?

  • 22 8-31-2011 at 2:05 pm

    Dana Jones said...

    The Playlist’s review also singles out Wood’s performance. Not trying to pimp out another review (or site) here, but I had to share this: [Wood’s] chemistry with Gosling is electric, although at this point we suspect Gosling would have chemistry with a plank of wood. Or January Jones.


  • 23 8-31-2011 at 2:06 pm

    j said...

    He just said “too dry for the top races” exc maybe Wood. I hope Wood doesn’t get traction. She was pretty terrible and overly mannered in Mildred Pierce; I guess technically it sort of fit the character, but that’s just her acting style in general. She peaked with Thirteen.

    Guy, I looked back at your Drive review. On paper it looks like Gosling will have 3 very different, relatively positively reviewed films, but you’re telling me his 3 BFCAs, 2 GG, and 2 SAG noms will continue to be paired with just 1 Oscar nom?

  • 24 8-31-2011 at 2:21 pm

    The Great Dane said...

    What’s up with Jennifer Ehle’s cameos in star films these days? The Adjustmest Bureau? (Weirdest cameo ever!)

    Well, guess Guy shed the light on Wood’s “AND” billing in the film. It was the strangest thing in the Ides trailer, that out of all that great cast, it’s Wood that got the “And” billing. But if she is a standout (before getting tossed aside) then it makes more sense, I guess.

  • 25 8-31-2011 at 2:24 pm

    The Great Dane said...

    Could the “And Evan Rachel Wood” billing even be part of an Oscar campaign if the studio thought she would be the safest nomination bet?

    But hey, let’s now forget that Clooney himself told us that Cate Blanchett would win Best Actress for The Good German, heh…

  • 26 8-31-2011 at 2:38 pm

    Dana Jones said...

    EW is going gaga over this film.

  • 27 8-31-2011 at 2:42 pm

    Keith said...

    Dana, I just saw that. Karger is usually pretty astute with his oscar predictions. But I don’t know. The rather muted response I’m reading here and other places makes me think Karger may be overstating its chances.

  • 28 8-31-2011 at 2:46 pm

    DylanS said...

    j: disagreements on her performance in “Mildred Pierce” aside, are you actually rooting against Wood getting a nomination for a performance you haven’t even seen yet?

  • 29 8-31-2011 at 2:55 pm

    Jim T said...

    Good job, once again!

  • 30 8-31-2011 at 3:37 pm

    Maxim said...

    I don’t know how well versed Guy is in US politics but this review sounds to me like it’s trying too hard to find fault with the movies’ pro-liberal stance (which, in fact strikes me as quite non-partisian) and the expectation that it’s not very accomplished if because it’s so singleminded. There might be something to it but I don’t know if the movie might seem more urgent and suprising to those here in US.

  • 31 8-31-2011 at 7:09 pm

    bobmcbob said...

    Can someone ruin the film for me? I have little interest in seeing the film after reading the review and watching the trailer, but I’m curious about the scandal that Clooney is involved in. Can someone who saw the film/play tell me what it is (obviously writing SPOILERS before you do so)?


  • 32 8-31-2011 at 7:35 pm

    DylanS said...

    A whole different kind of SPOILER ALERT. :)

  • 33 8-31-2011 at 9:02 pm

    Checko said...

    I’m praying for: blue valentine snub + crazy stupid love awsome abs + Drive cult craziness for the decades to come + possible sexiest man alive cover + every time being called the best actor of his generation = Oscar for best actor for The Ides of March don’t matter what.. Ryan Gosling deserves it so bad since The Believer

  • 34 8-31-2011 at 9:10 pm

    DylanS said...

    I don’t think the performance has to be remarkable for him to get nominated. The “Blue Valentine” snub and the films high profile and could be enough.

  • 35 8-31-2011 at 10:16 pm

    Nick Davis said...

    Maxim, I would say that somebody is definitely trying too hard to find fault, but it isn’t Guy. What on earth sounds “anti-liberal” here? I don’t see how the review could more clearly make the point that it’s the movie’s false and unimaginative incredulity–“You mean everyone‘s hands are dirty in electoral politics??”–that’s the nub of the criticism.

  • 36 8-31-2011 at 11:06 pm

    Dana Jones said...

    Haha @Checko- I’m sure the Academy will consider “crazy stupid love awesome abs” and “possible sexiest man alive cover” as the primary reason for a nomination. These are the urgent matters that require recognition.

  • 37 9-01-2011 at 12:31 am

    Glenn said...

    Maxim, it’s a good thing then that Guy isn’t American, because his review reading as if its not written by an American wouldn’t make much sense otherwise.

  • 38 9-01-2011 at 4:10 am

    Nikki said...

    @Checko Fingers crossed

  • 39 9-01-2011 at 5:11 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    @MovieFan/Dana Jones/j/Checko: I’m a big fan of Ryan Gosling, but I think I made it clear in the review that I don’t think this is one of his most interesting performances. Good year or not, I don’t see him getting nominated.

    @Maxim: I profess to being a little baffled by your comment — I make no claims to being an expert commentator on US politics, but neither am I judging the film’s politics — it certainly doesn’t imply that corruption is anything but a cross-party factor on the campaign trail. And I am a liberal myself, so far be it from me to take issue with a film’s lefty leanings.

    @Bobmcbob: If you have no interest in seeing the film, you can’t be that curious. Not going to sully anyone’s enjoyment, even with a spoiler alert. (That said, it’s not the twist of the century.)

  • 40 9-01-2011 at 7:17 am

    bobmcbob said...

    Well, if the scandal was original, I might see it. But my guess would be that Clooney’s character simply had an affair. Am I right?

  • 41 9-01-2011 at 5:51 pm

    tony rock said...

    Gosling could very well be nominated. Other critics agree.

  • 42 9-01-2011 at 10:00 pm

    The Other James D. said...

    G0sling is still very much in contention. If the Academy embraces the film, his starpower and previous snubs might be just enough for the actors branch to nominate him. At the same time, I got the same type of vibe about his performance from the trailer alone that Guy indicated above, so a snub is likely. I’m actually hoping instead that Drive will get a critics’ boost and be a surprise nominee in several categories. Uphill, but still….

    I know that I loathed Wood on True Blood (talk about trying way too hard), but it’d be nice if she garnered enough support for a nod. From your review, describing her character and the way it was written, I am not sold on a nom actually happening. But I get that she’s most likely from the ensemble. Here’s hoping that they look past PSH though for more interesting options.