“The Ides of March” film-noir twist on politics and loyalty

Gosling's character Stephen touring for George Clooney's radical politician in "The Ides of March".

It’s one thing to be the star of a film and also write, direct, and produce it. But to tinker with and deconstruct one’s own famously charismatic, silky screen persona is another thing entirely. George Clooney pulls off all five of these things with uniformly strong results in the political drama “The Ides of March”. Clooney is Mike Morris, a man whose talk of broad reforms and revisionist policy have captured the attention of a nation. Set over the course of a week leading up to the Democratic primary in Ohio, Morris’s campaign team include the jaded Paul (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and the young, idealistic Stephen played by….you guessed it, Ryan Gosling. This is the fourth time in the last 10 months Gosling’s name has showed up in a review of mine, and the fourth time I’ve emerged fairly awed with his work [and his looks].

Paul Giamatti is a rival candidate’s campaign manager who tries luring Stephen over to their camp, which sets off a chaotic set of events in which loyalties are tested and principles are violated. And that’s really what “Ides of March” is about. Not necessarily who wins the primary, but what ends people will go to ensure it goes one way or another. Gosling is our moral center here, and as he skews towards a shadier ethical ground, our sense of balance as viewers is totally thrown for a loop. Leaving “Ides of March”, the disturbing thing is how easily you can emphasize with Gosling’s arc. If such a youthful, energetic force can fall, who can’t?

Gosling’s face has been a particular joy to watch as a filmgoer — not because of his looks, mind you, but because of how much he communicates with his face. In “Ides”, his eyes are put to just as much work as his mouth, and one could certainly argue his performance gains its power from it. Side roles include Marisa Tomei in solid form as a Times reporter, Jeffrey Wright as a governor whose endorsement may be key to the primary, and Evan Rachel Wood as an intern. The script certainly tinkers with our expectation of a ‘love-interest’ role [the interest being for Gosling], taking some fairly jaw-dropping turns with the character.

There’s not a weak link in the cast, Clooney particularly standing out for his work as the candidate in question. So many times, in films like “Up in the Air” and the “Ocean’s” trilogy, we’ve perceived Clooney’s characters as suave, collected, vibrant guys. “Ides of March” is notable in that for the first time, we see very plainly that this is an act on his character’s part. Clooney, both in front of and behind the camera, propels the film forward at an intense clip.

Clooney as a director continues to develop as a stylist, working with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael to create a silhouette-shrouded, seedy vibe throughout. One particular scene, in which Gosling and Hoffman’s characters debate ethics lit against the American flag is some of the most ingenious cinematography this year. [the fact that the scene was filmed in Ann Arbor’s own Power-Center notwithstanding]

Clooney’s own liberal ideologies, however, pose more of a problem to the film. Seeing as much of the film takes place in town-hall debates, Clooney manages to work in some wry, of-the-moment observations of our own political landscape. Although I understand some of these scenes were necessary to establish his character’s political standing, there’s a point where it stops feeling like George Clooney’s character talking, and more like George Clooney. Given how deeply he dives into the remainder of his role, it makes these stick out sorely.

I don’t think anyone could call “Ides”‘s various plot twists shocking, but they’re handled with just the right tone and delivered so convincingly by the cast that it almost fools you into thinking they’re unforeseeable. Matters certainly take a turn for worse in the final 30 minutes, in which the film’s overall question is resolved — who can Stephen trust? Anyone? Himself?

“The Ides of March” doesn’t decide whether to be about politics or ethics until it’s a little too late to make much sense of the former. That said, the film’s tight grip on style and tone, as well as a near-perfect ensemble cast, ensure a gripping drama whose final message [and final shot, for that matter] is sure to unsettle many, and maybe rouse a few to action. B+

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