Originally posted on Criterion Cast October 11th, 2011:
It is difficult to pinpoint why The Ides of March never quite had me in its grip. All of the elements are there with across-the-board talent working on the production. And yet while it has been overall well-reviewed, I take issue with several criticisms against it, which will be addressed forthwith. It is more than watchable and never a drag, but it is bogged down by various misgivings. These include an arguably miscast lead with Gosling’s protagonist instilling only indifference in yours truly. The story carries no impact by its conclusion, never escaping the inherent trappings of fiction and ultimately feeling artificial. The Ides of March is serviceable but forgettable, unable to establish itself in the pantheon of political thrillers outside of nicely showcasing the influence of those that came before.
Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is a young and ambitious Junior Campaign Manager, who happens to truly believe in Mike Morris (George Clooney), a Governor and Democratic dream candidate full of lofty and grand statements (he comes complete with overt Shepard Fairey inspired artwork). The film takes place in Ohio as time closes in on the Democratic Primary. Morris competes with an Arkansas senator for the slot. When Stephen gets a call from the opposing candidate’s campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) who wants to meet with him, he grapples whether or not to go and whether he should tell co-worker, Morris’ campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man with a fierce streak of loyalty. Meanwhile, a budding romance with young intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) has consequences of its own. Stephen’s choices allow him to see firsthand that nefarious backstabbing, betrayal, hidden agendas, manipulation and deal making are just an everyday occurrence in the world of politics.
Clooney’s Lumet-like directorial approach values logically streamlined presentation. He smartly focuses on the interplay between characters that are rooted in history, feeling lived-in with all-encompassing cynicism radiating from all the major players. The writer of “Farragut North”, the play The Ides of March is based on, and screenwriters Clooney and Grant Heslov, make sure we feel the years entrenched between people who know how the game is played. Paul and journalist Ida (Marisa Tomei) are ‘friends’ but know that they will turn on each other at any second for any reason. Not only can you not trust anyone, but all the years of hard work are bittersweet because in this world, you are instantly replaceable. Our understanding of this is what transfers to the audience more than anything. Considering one of the film’s major purposes is to showcase the ‘behind-the-curtain’ interplay in politics, it is the highlight of the film.
Some are annoyed that the political corruption in the film is meant to be revelatory, stating that we are meant to be shocked when it is revealed that—surprise!—politics are dirty. The Ides of March never struck me as meaning to be revelatory. The film is advertised as a political thriller (somewhat misleading but the point remains). Blaming a ‘political thriller’ for posing revelatory through corruption is like chastising an action film for daring to showcase something as predictable as a car chase. The film presents corruption as very matter-of-fact and its job is to keep us engaged even though the audience senses the kinds of tropes that will likely come into play. This is where the film fails to deliver.
While The Ides of March is not meant to be revelatory, it is meant to get the audience to feel the cynical reality of its world like a punch in the gut. Yet because the plot feels artificial, it ends up being inconsequential. The turns the film takes should not, in theory, have been a hard sell. The story treks along, and goes where it needs to go, but the twists and choices being made never click. It always feels strung along in a paint-by-numbers way, where things merely happen because the script says they have to. What the film does want to have it gravitas and it only does when Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti are on screen. Only when these two appear does the film feel like it has the weight the loftily epic title suggests.
The film rests on Ryan Gosling’s shoulders and a combination of miscasting, lack of believability and uninteresting protagonist are large contributors to this film not quite working. Performance wise, it is difficult to believe Gosling as a doe-eyed idealist in the beginning, making it hard to care about his arc, which brings him to some surprising places. The second half of the film demands from him a wide teary-eyed panic stare of disbelief in scene after scene which becomes tiresome.
All in all, Stephen is just not very engaging and the audience caring about his transformation is essential. The choice to have his arc forgo a gradual process, favoring a 180 degree turn in one scene has a lot of potential, as long as the film can make the audience believe it. Since the prelude of Stephen’s journey does not resonate, how can we care about the severity of his survival-mode choices we suddenly see him making?
There are several issues involving the Gosling character that undermine the film’s plausibility. The first is that the decision Stephen makes early in the film to meet with Tom Duffy rings absolutely false. In Hoffman’s speech on loyalty (the film’s best scene), he speculates on why Stephen made what he so precisely calls a ‘choice’ as opposed to Stephen’s claim of making a ‘mistake’. I do not buy into his speculations. Stephen is not some new kid on the block. He is an experienced up-and-coming campaign manager. When the opponent’s campaign manager calls up and asks for a meeting, you simply do not go. There is nothing we see of Stephen before this decision is made to make us understand the choice. This event sets everything in motion, and since it rings false, as a result the whole film rings false. Let’s not even mention that the entire film takes place within around three days.
The Ides of March features wonderful support from all. George Clooney’s small role carries the right levels of elusiveness in an eerily appropriate bit of self-casting. Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood are both excellent, particularly Wood who does a lot with somewhat constricting and unbelievable material.
Another complaint that keeps popping up in reviews is the lament that the films dialogue was not characteristic of Mamet or Sorkin. I do not know when it became necessary for a film’s dialogue to need an auteurs streak in order to be smart. The dialogue taken on its own is quite strong, and it is characteristic of Clooney’s Lumet-inspired desire to not have any distracting style whether it is in directorial choices or writing and so on.
Despite smart dialogue, sleek succinct direction and a bevy of noteworthy performances, The Ides of March feels inconsequential. Between an air of going through the motions and a protagonist whose choices ring false from the get-go, headlined by a performance that feels inappropriately distant, the film never gets past serviceable.