While it might have opened to a relatively underwhelming, even frosty reception at the Venice Film Festival in August, don’t let that put you off what is in fact one of the year’s most exciting and gripping thrillers, The Ides of March. Finding himself in the director’s chair for the third time, George Clooney – who also stars, co-writes and produces this film – is at arguably his most confident and assured yet as a helmer in this slick, classy political film the likes of which Hollywood has been desperately craving this year.
Ryan Gosling – who seems to succeed in just about any genre he turns his hand to – is Stephen Meyers, the Junior Campaign Manager for beloved Democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney). Young and idealistic, Meyers is quick to bat away the advances of Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the Senior Campaign Manager for Morris’ Republican rival for the White House, when he tries to recruit Meyers to jump ship. Meyers does, however, make the rookie mistake of meeting with him for a brief chat, which sets in motion a course of events, rousing the suspicions of Morris’ paranoid veteran Senior Campaign Manager, Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), while Meyers becomes embroiled in a series of romantic liaisons with an intern, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), which are far more dangerous than he could ever have anticipated.
Though the notion that politicians and anyone in their thrall are frequent disappointments will be a surprise to few, there’s more going on in The Ides of March than a simplistically black-and-white tale of political shuttle-cocking. Make no mistake, the film is pure allegory in every sense of the word, the platform of optimism on which Morris rises reflecting that of Barack Obama, and how it follows through with this mirrors present concerns about America’s president elect, a human after all, sullied by pragmatism, breaking some of his key policies and upsetting some of his most ardent followers. The story here is naturally a wealth more dramatic – and, indeed, melodramatic – than real life, but the point made is a deliberate one, and refreshingly balanced despite batting so keenly out of the lefty-liberal branch of Hollywood. Rather, this is a film in which all sides of the spectrum are assailed by the razor-sharp screenplay.
Very much a film of two halves, the first introduces us to the principal players – the enthusiastic young Meyers, the idealised, even Christ-like Morris, and all of the dirty administrators and journalists in between – while the second has the whole house of cards fall down in spectacular fashion as some less-than savoury facts come to light. In the face of this, Meyers is torn between loyalty to his cause and choosing the path best for his soul, an excruciating decision which plays out satisfactorily even if it is as a result probably the most depressingly engaging film about politics of the last few years. There are, however, unexpected bouts of bracing humour throughout; Gosling and Wood’s chemistry during their early dalliances is delightful, and the witty sparring he enjoys with Giamatti and Tomei in particular – the latter playing a savvy, unscrupulous journalist for the New York Times – is electric.
It is still at its core, and at its most successful, a serious document of the perennial fallibility of even those we put most of our dreams, our hopes, and most sadly, our trust into. Dressed as a nervy, snappily paced thriller – running in at a ruthlessly efficient 101 minutes – the sneaky phone conversations and devious deals of double agents are deliciously delivered by Clooney, who as director and player shows himself to once again be a master of all crafts. The film’s best scene, a shadowy confrontation between Meyers and Morris near the film’s climax, recalls the near-unbearable tension and paranoia of classics like All the President’s Men, yet as good a due as it pays to such films, it is on its own account a skilful mix of probing character study, unsettling drama – admittedly the most conventional element – and cutting political sentiment. That it all ties together with a chilling and thought-provoking ending, boasting a haunting final shot – possibly the best of any film this year so far – is just icing on the cake.
While perhaps not the sure-fire Best Picture nominee many were expecting, there is still the sure possibility that Academy members will find room for George Clooney’s superbly-executed political thriller, directed with a meticulous eye for wringing out maximum tension, and acted so well by so many that, go on then, you might as well call it an actor’s workshop. While Clooney is the statuesque face plastered on all the posters – both in real life and in this film’s world – it is Gosling who runs away with the lion’s share of the glory, perfectly encompassing that initial boyish naïveté necessary for the more complex components of his character’s later rise – or depending on your view, fall – to convince. Hoffman and Giamatti, meanwhile, are effortlessly brilliant as the snide Campaign Managers, and clearly enjoy ripping through every word of the script’s acid-tongued dialogue.
Ryan Gosling is astonishing in this thrilling and timely – if also bleak – political allegory, which skilfully reflects Obama-era disappointment and also functions as a concise riff on morality, role models and the dangers of idealism.
The Ides of March opens in the UK on October 28th.