' ' Cinema Romantico: The Ides Of March

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Ides Of March

Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) stands at a podium before a giant American flag a week before the Democratic primary in that ceaselessly figuratively bloody battleground state of Ohio talking about the issues. You know, distribution of wealth, dependence on foreign oil, so on and so forth, the issues that drive a Presidential election. Or do they? The scene flips to backstage, the rear of the American flag, where Morris's campaign manager and junior campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), respectively, are discussing how North Carolina's Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright) is threatening to swing an all-critical 356 delegates the other way and ensuring the nomination for Morris's opponent. Issues? What issues? This primary won't turn on any stinkin' issues. It will turn on a backroom deal. Call me a "Million Dollar Baby" devotee, because I am, but it made me think of Morgan Freeman's majestic line: "Everything in boxing is backwards."

What is the Presidential Primary process but a boxing match? A down and dirty, fifteen round, heavyweight boxing match? Everyone, often even people within their own candidate's camp, throws punches. And "The Ides Of March", directed by Clooney with a firm, non-showy hand, and based on Beau Willimon's play "Farragut North", is the director himself, a noted political activist, throwing an unmerciful right hook.

Meyers, young and brilliant, is approached by his opponent's campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). Against his better judgment, in defiance of Zara's most treasured trait (loyalty), Meyers agrees to meet and is told by Duffy that his camp is going to secure the Senator Thompson's endorsement by promising him the position of Secretary of State, thereby sealing the nomination. Therefore, Duffy explains, he should jump ship to join the winning team. Meyers tells Zara and together they appeal to Morris to offer the same deal to Senator Thompson to get him on their side but Morris refuses. He doesn't like Thompson and he made a pledge not to play that ideal-less game. Eventually a muckraking bastard - excuse me, a muckraking bitch (Marisa Tomei, convincing as always) somehow acquires the inside scoop on the whole sordid affair and threatens to drag Meyers down.

Meanwhile Meyers gains a political sex buddy in the form of nearly too young Molly (Evan Rachel Word), an intern for the Morris campaign and daughter of the Democratic National Committee's Chairman. But this, as it must, leads to yet another sordid revelation which also threatens to drag him as as well as the campaign down. And while the majority of the cinematic glitterati seems quite taken with the way Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan generate sexual tension with no dialogue and just facial expressions in "Drive" I must admit I felt the dialogue-heavy scenes between Gosling and Wood in "The Ides Of March", the way Clooney frames them in medium shots to start and then pushes in to close-ups, crackled much, much more.

Meyers is meant to be the audience surrogate, not necessarily in so much as he's the character for whom we most care but that he starts as someone with true belief in a cause and then feels it get slowly stripped away. The film builds to a moment of unbelievable, genuine suspense, a face off between Meyers and Morris that is of such immense quality precisely because for a moment or two there you actually aren't sure how it will play out. But then you realize it doesn't matter how it plays out. It's already been played out. And not in a good way.

Loyalty and ethics, not election results, are the key concerns here, yes, but I was struck more by the plight of young Molly, not least because in light of The Manic Pixie Dream Girl piece I put up at AM last week that generated much discussion in the comments about the plight of cinematic female characters in general. Here's a character portrayed as a piece on a District of Columbia chessboard, maybe even a piece of meat in a US Capital butcher shop. She gets used, abused, discarded, with little to no characterization other than what she represents to the various men swirling all around her. I have no idea whether or not this true to the life of the various comely interns that must be floating all about the politicized world, but it's indicative of how a human being inside the cutthroat boxing ring of politics can easily get trampled. Then they have a press conference about you and forget you ever existed.


Anonymous said...

Can't wait to see this! Big fan of Clooney's direction.

I have to admit that I thought the weakest bit of Drive was Mulligan, so it's nice to see that there's full blown chemistry between him and Wood.

How was Gosling's performance all in all?

Nick Prigge said...

Gosling was good. Everyone was good. I wouldn't say anyone was great, just good. It's that sort of movie, I think, where the premise outweighs the performances.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Stephen Meyers was ever idealistic or had good ethics. He just thinks he did. But yes, he was good and I also like most of Clooney's direction and adaptation of the play. Not that I have seen or read the play, of course.

Nick Prigge said...

Interesting. I can get behind that reading of the character. It kinda makes the whole thing that much more depressing. Which is a good thing.