The View From Here

Review - The Ides Of March

Michael Bonner

George Clooney’s fourth film as director takes place across a handful of tense days during a primary election in Ohio, where governor Mike Morris (Clooney) is a hair’s-breadth away from securing the Democratic party nomination to stand for office...

THE IDES OF MARCH
****
DIRECTED BY George Clooney
STARRING George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Phillip Seymour Hoffman
OPENS OCTOBER 28 // CERT 15 // 100 MINS

George Clooney’s fourth film as director takes place across a handful of tense days during a primary election in Ohio, where governor Mike Morris (Clooney) is a hair’s-breadth away from securing the Democratic party nomination to stand for office.

Morris works the front of house with smooth, statesmanly charm; he’s a confident TV performer, a glad hander of voters, the consummate master of the sound bite. It’s easy to see Clooney playing up to his own reputation as a liberal activist: the veteran of G8 summits, anti-war marches and a vocal campaigner against the Darfur conflict. Clooney’s often said he’ll never run for President – “Drank too much, did too many drugs,” he once told Uncut – so this, perhaps, is the closest we’ll get to seeing him take a run at the White House. You can see echoes here of another film about politicians, starring another poster boy for the liberal left: Robert Redford’s The Candidate.

As good as Morris is at pressing flesh, this is a really backroom yarn, set in sweaty campaign offices and airless hotel suites, and much of the film’s drama coming from the hurly burly of spin, compromises and dark arts deployed to secure Morris’ victory. The mood is one of highly-caffeinated paranoia. Everyone is locked into what news the next round of opinion polls will bring; each live TV debate carries an endless capacity for error, embarrassment and fuck-up. It’s here Clooney – with his director’s cap on – introduces us to Morris’ team, and particularly his “brain’s trust”, campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) the veteran of six previous primaries, and up-and-coming press secretary Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling). On the other side, there’s Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), a rival campaign manager. There’s some great macho posturing between Zara and Duffy, like two crusty old rhinos locking horns down at the waterhole.

The Ides Of March is adapted from a stage play, Farragut North, by Beau Willimon, based on his experiences working as an intern on Democrat Howard Dean’s 2004 primary campaign. In many respects, what we see on screen is hardly breaking news: politics is a mucky business with plenty of “negative shit” thrown around. Really, who knew? Stephen leaks online a rumour about a rival candidate having shares in a Liberian diamond mine: “I don’t care if it’s true,” he says, “I just want to hear him deny it.”

Clooney has explored similar ideas before with K Street (2003) – a topical satire set among Washington’s lobbyists and politicians that he co-produced for HBO with Steven Soderbergh. While The Ides Of March at first resembles K Street’s behind-the-scenes shenanigans, the film detours into territory more familiar from Clooney’s cherished political thrillers from the 1960s and Seventies. The story turns on a late night phone call Stephen intercepts that threatens to thrown Morris’ campaign out of whack. It only gets worse, and before long Stephen’s got a corpse on his hands. Stephen appears here as a distant cousin to the alienated heroes who features in those thrillers Clooney loves. “This is the big league,” he’s told. “When you fuck up, you lose the right to play.”

It’s Gosling’s second great performance in as many months, after his lead role in Drive. Gosling is a composed, self-contained actor, which stood him in good stead for playing a character as impassive as the Driver. It works well here, too, as Gosling internalises the growing conflict between Stephen’s ambitions and his ideological crisis. It’s right and proper to commend the high-end cast Clooney’s assembled here – everyone gets at least one meaty scene to play. But this is Gosling’s moment. It feels like we’re watching an actor at a tipping point in his career, about to make the jump from talked-about cult favourite (his best work is still in smaller films like Drive, Half Nelson and Blue Valentine) to talked-about movie star. It’s an exciting time.


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