The Ides of March

It is said politics and sausage have a great deal in common:  You don’t want to know what goes into either one.  Yet, I find behind-the-scenes documentaries of political campaigns to be fascinating to watch.  To see the maneuvering and plotting and planning required to get a man or woman elected to statewide or national office is staggering.  The scheduling, the travel, the handshakes, the baby kissing, the impromptu question-and-answer sessions with voters (that may not be all that spontaneous) all requires careful coordination and mindboggling organizational skills.  It also forces candidates to be good actors.  While they may be uncomfortable with pressing the flesh with hundreds or thousands of people they don’t know and may have to deal with people with whom they don’t completely agree, those running for office have to be able to put on a happy face and calm demeanor whenever they are in front of the public and the media.  When that façade of calm and confidence begins to slip, only then do we get a glimpse of the real person underneath.  It is a talent that can hide a world of flaws, shortcomings and sins.  The focus of this week’s film, “The Ides of March,” is a political campaign that is on the verge of great success or complete collapse.  Its fate will be decided by how well those who are running it can deal with adversities both known and unknown.

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is a 30-year old assistant campaign manager for Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) who is in a tight race for the Democratic presidential nomination with Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell).  Stephen not only works for Morris, he believes Morris is the best hope America has to be great again.  Both men see the Ohio primary, scheduled for March 15th, as the possible deciding factor in the campaign.  Stephen’s boss is Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a seasoned campaign manager.  The race is close and the endorsement of Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), along with the 300-plus delegates he controls from his own failed bid for the nomination, would be enough to lock up victory.  Paul goes on a trip to visit Senator Thompson to try and gain his endorsement.  While he’s away from the campaign, Senator Pullman’s campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) contacts Stephen with an offer to leave the Morris campaign and work for Pullman.  Duffy says Thompson has been offered the post of Secretary of State in a possible Pullman administration, locking in his endorsement, delegates and home state in a future primary.  Duffy also tells Stephen that Republicans are going to vote for Pullman in the open Ohio primary because they dislike Morris so much.  Reeling from the news and unsure about his future, Stephen decides not to tell Paul about the offer.  Meanwhile, Stephen begins a relationship with campaign intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) whose father is the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.  They need to keep their affair as quiet as possible to avoid even a hint of scandal; but a late night call to Molly’s cell phone begins to unravel Stephen’s idealism about the campaign and may end the political aspirations of one of the candidates.

“The Ides of March” has no car chases, no fights, no shootouts, no robots, no spaceships, no star athletes, no monsters and no superheroes.    It is not a film for the lazy or the uninformed.  It is a film that requires something from the audience…its full attention.  Most movies simply bombard the viewer with bright colors, thunderous soundtracks and mindless action.  “The Ides of March” is made for people who don’t require bells and whistles to be entertained.  That will greatly cut down its total audience (as shown by the first weekend’s grosses) and that’s a shame because it’s very good.

The story, based on a 2008 play called “Farragut North,” is a tightly woven collection of actions and reactions, of crosses and double crosses.  Missing any one interaction between characters or overlooking the simplest office task could prove to unravel your understanding of the plot.  It provides a look behind the curtain of a slickly managed national campaign that should give anyone pause before they consider running for president or even dog catcher.  As the film opens, everyone is polished, professional, and confident in their positions, certain they know the outcome of the race.  As it moves along, that veneer of high polish begins to wear off and, by the end, everyone looks haggard, tired and beaten.  Some of the transformations occur suddenly, while others take time.  It is these slower meltdowns that make “The Ides of March” so entertaining and completely believable.

While George Clooney is the sizzle, Ryan Gosling is the steak.  Gosling owns this movie as the wunderkind of the Morris campaign.  His confidence and swagger are infectious but his well-meaning efforts leading to his own downfall are a sign of internal doubts.  There aren’t many actors that can transform a character from likeable to detestable within one movie and make it believable.  Gosling manages to perform that feat.  As his metamorphosis reaches its end, I was reminded of the scene in “Star Wars:  Episode III - Revenge of the Sith” where the newly constructed Darth Vader is raised into an upright position for our first good look at the Sith Lord.  The camera pans around Gosling in a close up of his face.  The idealism seen early on is replaced by a cynicism that oozes from every pore.  The transformation is complete.  It is startling to say the least; but the events of the film make it believable and even understandable.  While you want Stephen to remain an idealist, you know it’s impossible given the state of modern American politics.

George Clooney, who directed and co-wrote the script, seems right at home as a political candidate.  He also looks comfortable with the duality of his role.  He’s both an earnest and sensitive man of the people and a cutthroat politician who would sell his own family for a vote.  While he tells his wife too many compromises have been made in the past and refuses to make any more, he is willing to rethink that position if it means winning the nomination.  Clooney’s meltdown scene comes late in the film.  It’s more of a “rat in a corner” confrontation that brings out the street fighter in the dignified statesman.  It also may be the most honest the character is in the whole movie.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are essentially playing the same character.  As the two experienced campaign runners, both men show their skills at their jobs and their willingness to throw friends and co-workers under the nearest bus if it suits their needs.  Hoffman is the more calm of the pair while Giamatti is more manic but the two are the same guy.  That’s not to say they aren’t both good in the roles but there is little to differentiate them one another.  Perhaps that says something about politics.  While each candidate expresses a view that appears to be very different from their opponent, they basically are two sides of the same coin.  Maybe the script is saying that all the money, time and energy exerted in political campaigns is wasted since most of those we elect to office aren’t that different from the person who held it before no matter which party they represent.

“The Ides of March” is rated R for pervasive language.  Foul language is common and runs the gamut of words not used in polite company; however, since this is national politics, it’s understandable.

Some will blame the liberal politics espoused by candidate Morris as the reason why the film didn’t make much money in its opening weekend.  I don’t believe people choose their movies by that criterion but if they do, that’s a shame.  Those people are missing some very good performances in an excellent movie.

“The Ides of March” gets five guitars.

Ornithology, anatomy and xenobiology are the subjects of this week’s new movies.  Vote for the film I see and review next.

The Big Year—Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin are obsessive bird watchers duking it out to spot the most species in a given year.

Footloose—A big city teen is transplanted to a small southern town and challenges the community's ban on loud music and dancing.

The Thing—A scientific expedition stumbles across an extraterrestrial ship in the ice, awakening a murderous, shape-shifting creature.

Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice currently in theatres.

Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.

Have a question or comment?  Send it to stanthemovieman@att.net.  Follow Stan on Twitter @moviemanstan.