George Clooney’s directorial career has been marked by great films – from the underrated Confessions of a Dangerous Mind to the spectacular Good Night, and Good Luck., Clooney has established himself as a great actor who can direct other actors just as well. The Ides of March continues in this line of finely polished films with an outstanding cast, all of whom turn in outstanding performances – it’s a shame that these performances are discarded so quickly, however, as the film ends just as it gets off the ground.
I’ve mentioned before that Ryan Gosling is an incredible actor who has had an incredible year – though I have yet to see Drive, his performances in Crazy, Stupid, Love. and The Ides of March are star-making performances. Here, as junior campaign manager Stephen, Gosling packs a misty-eyed idealist punch who can spin almost any story in a positive direction for Clooney’s Governor Mike Morris, a Democratic presidential candidate vying for the DNC nomination days before a critical Ohio primary. Gosling is definitely the highlight – his slow fall from naive yet idealistic to corrupt and Macchiavellian is handled incredibly well by the rising star. There is never a false note, and his face always reveals just enough while still having a politician’s poker face.
The descent itself – the primary plot of the film – is written very well, with events unfolding naturally and with just enough surprise to keep the viewer on their toes but not so much as to be unbelievable. No betrayal – and there are a lot of them – seems out of character, no development seems disingenuous – it’s all very organic. The greatest success of the script, however, comes from the way that the film displays these characters as honorable people working toward a common ideal, and then slowly peels away the layers and reveals them all for the cutthroat players they really are. It’s a vicious game, but one that is incredibly engaging to watch.
The supporting cast is not to be ignored as these ostensibly-honorable-but-actually-not politicians; Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti offer the best performances, with Clooney’s performance as the candidate not given enough screentime. Hoffman portrays the senior campaign manager for Morris, a man to whom loyalty matters tremendously; Giamatti portrays a rival campaign manager who tries to recruit Stephen. They act as the sort of devil and angel on the shoulders of Stephen, who is torn between the two, and both have moments of wonderfully scene-chewing dark joy and cockeyed optimism that make them some of the most simultaneously menacing and endearing performances of the year – not unlike real politicians, I imagine.
The film’s greatest weakness, however, is in how little plot there actually is. The film’s overall plot could be told in no more than an hour, all things considered. It’s padded with a lot of fake campaign footage that highlights Clooney’s governor character – played excellently by Clooney, whom I would definitely buy as a presidential candidate – and a lengthy subplot with an intern that doesn’t become truly interesting until around halfway through the film. Just as Gosling’s Stephen becomes a real playmaker in the political game, the film ends. There is a lot of lost potential there for further conflict, and the resolution we get isn’t entirely satisfying. The film makes a point leaving off where it does, however, and I won’t fault it for that – I just wanted more.
The Ides of March is a gem in the crop of sub-par political thrillers of the past few years, that is surprisingly topical and contains a great cast with performances worthy of awards in any year other than 2011, a year with no shortage of great performances. If only it was an extra half-hour longer, it’d be one of the best films of the year.
* * * 1/2