Early in The Ides of March, a nightclub scene ends on a lingering shot of the lounge singer crooning the word “disappear.” What lyrics came before this word escape me because it’s this final word that director George Clooney wants to burn into our memory. The thing about being in positions of power is you get there and spend the rest of your time trying to survive as long as you can. Or at least as long as it takes your opponents to make you disappear.
The Ides of March sets out to tell us that society needs to be greater than any one individual in order to succeed. The title (taken from the day Caesar was murdered) is the first window into a film wherein individual characters are put to the test while all the time questioning whether the erasure of one man might actually lead to the betterment of a greater cause.
In American politics, the individuals are made up of mostly white men who play pawns in a dirty game, set up only to be knocked down by the smallest mistake (or choice, if you will). A good cover up can keep you alive in politics but an honest set of ideals might be the quickest path to ejection. For most of these men, the fall back options are comfortable $1 million a year consulting jobs so the thrill of trying their hand at government is worth a shot. Very little that The Ides of March presents will come as news to anybody paying attention lately. In a world where leaders struggle to stay a step ahead of even the most common political bloggers and political parties have become football teams whose game consists solely of sacking the opposition, the desire for power only has increased. The ways to obtain this power knows no bounds.
The story, based on a play by Beau Willimon called Farragut North, follows Stephen (Gosling), a young upstart political consultant for a democratic presidential hopeful, Mike Morris (Clooney). The plot is constructed, on the surface, around the race to win the Ohio primary. We quickly realize, as the importance of Ohio literally evaporates from the story, that the real plot revolves around a tiny mistake made by Stephen and how a lucky break, ironically also brought about by the potentially disastrous relationship with an intern, leads Stephen to find out something dirty about Morris. With this ace in his pocket, Stephen gains political leverage strong enough to gear Morris towards victory and keep himself looking like a hero in the end.
In some ways, that plot description gives away the whole story but I bet you could have guessed most of it. The Ides of March isn’t about the unique plot it will present but about a systemic failure of an entire nation’s democratic system. The story is told like a potboiler noir film, with a searing score by Alexander Desplat. We are not meant to take the plot or melodrama seriously, just as we aren’t meant to believe Gloria Swanson as a factually aged starlet in Sunset Blvd. It’s about what these cardboard cutouts represent and how they are all pawns in one big game.
The story has all the players you need to for a good old-fashioned thriller. You have the man in charge, fit with demons in his closet but ideals in the right place. You have the young upstart who thinks he knows best but is just one inexperienced mistake away from blowing the lid off the whole thing. You have the femme fatale who not so naively throws a monkey wrench into an otherwise “boys only” game. You have the one lowly reporter, ostensibly out for the truth but more than willing to print the legend. Then there’s the overweight, unattractive but brilliant men (played wisely by Giamatti and Hoffman) who are the real brains behind the handsome men at the podium. These are the puppet master’s pulling the strings, only they are too smart for their own good and it can’t end well. The Ides of March’s greatest strength is how unabashedly it uses the classic American pulp structure to tell a very topical story of politics today. For this risky and daring approach the film will no doubt push people away. It’s this style, however, that I loved about the film.
The cast of characters is played strongly by all the profound actors involved. This is an ensemble piece that lives and dies by its players’ willingness to take a plunge into the world. The only person who felt out-of-place was Evan Rachel Wood as young Molly, the intern. She should have been a perfect foil for both of the powerful men but instead she came off as easy and too youthful to believe. I find it hard to digest (in the noir sense of the word) that our sharp men would risk so much for an attractive girl with little bark or bite. Many noir films succeed because of their female leads and Ides can’t quite overcome what the lack of this actress does to the structure. In fact, because of Wood’s awkwardness, I suppose many will miss the noir elements in the film altogether. As such, I fear the film will play as silly to some.
Clooney’s direction is otherwise impeccable. The performances never go too far with the melodrama and every emotion seems to be walking a tight rope, tight enough that Clooney could pull it in another direction at any moment. Philip Seymour Hoffman is deserving of an Oscar nomination for his layered portrayal of Paul, the weathered consultant of Morris. Hoffman constantly impresses with how effortlessly he wears different character shades from scene to scene. Many people have remarked that Hoffman always seems to be phoning in his performances. I think he’s just that good. Stephen Mirrione’s editing will go virtually unnoticed because it’s simply too graceful to pay attention to. Some shots are held longer than feels comfortable and cuts seem to come at a pace where the storytelling remains controlled. The velvety cutting mesmerized me. Matching the rhythm are Phedon Papamichael’s visuals. There isn’t as much depth here is in the images from Moneyball but Papamichael’s sells us the noir look without overshooting it. The look is commendable, if not quite laudable.
One may be inclined to compare The Ides of March to Michael Clayton. The superficial similarities are abundant (from Clooney to the gloomy look). I think this comparison is completely off base and reduces both films. Ides sets out to make politics look like a pulp game of Americana. It’s gross and dirty but always fun to watch. Clayton is textured, slow burning, and smart, but very specific. They are both wonderful films for very different reasons; to compare the two would be a waste of energy. Ultimately, like many critics, I wish The Ides of March did more with what it had. It could have provided something in the way of insights. But I was pleasantly surprised with Clooney’s courageous presentation of very serious themes. Really it’s about Stephen’s ability to keep an ace in his pocket long enough to pull it out when it’s the difference between him disappearing or surviving another day. With the goal line politics we have currently in our country and the upcoming election on everyone’s mind, this metaphor has special relevance.