George Clooney’s ambitious and interesting directorial career finally bites off more than it can properly chew with his new political potboiler, The Ides of March. Although it’s never short on tension or aesthetic skill, this latest work lacks the confidence and presence of the others; even with a sports farce like Leatherheads Clooney had no illusions or reservations about the kind of story he was telling. In the face of a thoughtful dissection of political power and the process of placing leaders in that power, he recoils a little and settles for a safer surface level telling. Clooney is just too careful and encounters a classic problem with polemics as film; if it isn’t going to say anything new, how long will we stay around to listen? The result is an impeccably acted and smoothly polished hand-wringer about the general dangers of elected office and public zeitgeist that fails to make any impact.
As a viewer, if I’m walking into a George Clooney film about the didactic and troublesome road of Democracy with a title ominously echoing Julius Caesar, I want it to go big or go home. Be daring, and even combative if the material warrants it. Based off the stage play ‘Farragut North’ by Beau Williamson, March generates its suspense from lessons and revelations that all of its characters, even those more fresh-faced players, should already know by heart. Idealism and virtue in the face of rhetoric, expectation and compromise are not easy values to hold on to. When greenhorn campaign manager Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) finds himself slowly disillusioned by tarnished candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney), it’s not exactly dramatically illuminating for the audience or the characters. If you have ever followed the ebb and flow of election-time presidential hopefuls, than you will have mostly observed any lesson Ides hopes to impart.
But, what if Clooney isn’t after the lesson? What if he’s only concerned with slightly jarring our own sense of satisfaction and expectation when it comes to those who govern us? He’s cast his film with a careful eye for scene-builders and scenery destroyers, and he knows when to bench and run all the right players. In the acting, his own included, he’s built the thematic foundations and he airs out the play with some intentional melodrama that adds a bit of cinematic zing. This isn’t a teaching exercise, it’s a gentle jostle intended to mildly rouse us from our preconceived notions of the part we, the people play in the breeding and feeding of a political animal.
Gosling continues his run of compelling characters resting on a moral code with his turn as Meyers, and Clooney relies on his charm as an actor in ways that Refn never considered in the recent Drive. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Morris’ Judas of a boss, Paul Zara, is keenly tuned to the material and delivers some grand monologues with enough dramatic force that it complements Clooney’s understated direction of the moody chamber-pieces. Paul Giamtti, Evan Rachel Wood, and Marisa Tomei stretch out their acting chops for roles that basically amount to ‘Political Compromise: The Playset!’ Wood is the sexy intern, Giamatti the ruthless competition, and Tomei the hound-dog journalist. Clooney rounds them out as the central action figure, complete with party-line action grip, and double-tongue wag. He embodies Mike’s positive qualities and his own moral boundaries with a compassion that is initially intriguing. Eventually, even Clooney’s furrowed brow and bitter sideways half-grin can’t disguise the obvious trajectory of a flattened character.
I’m not sure that the script adaptation has warranted this level of nuance in the acting or directing. The plotting and pacing are all pitched at the rise and fall of Mike and his cause in the eyes of Stephen. It aims for morality but depends upon melodrama instead, and there’s an almost inevitable sense of disappointment in the film that happens as Stephen finds his own faults with Mike. Perhaps somewhere in there, Clooney has fallen into the very trap he’s wanted to expose; that we build up false idols and flammable straw-men with our own obsession and expectation for our leaders. As the road to election night wears down and distorts the resolve and character of candidates, so can a director be forced under the wheel of his own bus when faced with a film he’s trying to needlessly corral. There’s something untamed about the themes and ideas Clooney is chasing here, and in his effort to scrub them up and make them presentable in public, he’s gone weary himself, dragging up to the podium with eyes that can’t quite see the path.
No matter, George is a talented guy and Ides of March is a respectable movie. If only it had also been a bold and entertaining one, as strong in its convictions as its clear ancestors, the work of Sidney Lumet, David Mamet and Elia Kazan. For everyone who isn’t intrinsically interested in obvious political assertions or the behind-the-scenes process of a candidate’s road to election night this one is best as a renter, where it will face the ultimate voting process at the mercy of your remote control finger.