In the opening scene of “The Ides of March,” Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling, “Drive”) is trying to get a pair of podiums raised two extra inches in preparation for a debate. Why? To make the other guy look shorter. And making the other guy look shorter, making the other guy look bad, is an essential part of “The Ides of March.”
At Quality 16, Rave and State Theater
“The Ides of March” is a political thriller (loosely based on the play “Farragut North”) centered around the Democratic Primary Elections in Ohio — though many might recognize a few restaurants in Detroit, as well as some Ann Arbor scenery, extras in the background. Meyers is a wide-eyed campaign manager and consultant working for Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney, “The American”) and is one of the best political minds in the business. Just as it seems his team has everything figured out and the election in the bag, scandal erupts through an interplay of sex, media and political figures, and “The Ides of March” becomes a meditation on integrity.
The cast is flawless. Phillip Seymour Hoffman (“Moneyball”) plays Paul Zara, the intelligent but old-fashioned chief campaign manager for Morris. Through no fault of his own, his role gets a little bit buried under all the dirt. Clooney — also the film’s director — doesn’t have much screen time, but his articulate, moderate stances on issues and his charisma draw the audience to him whether we see his face or not. Morris is so earnest and so likeable when he speaks that it’s shocking when he turns out not to be as wholesome as he looks. Clooney successfully captures the disconnect between the private and public face of a candidate.
Gosling is the actor who will most likely walk away with the Oscar nomination for best actor after his performance as Meyers. He works behind the scenes and crafts Morris. He decides who gets elected and may be one of the most powerful men in America. Meyers does not have Morris’s open-faced charm, but he is not a traditional politician. Gosling rises to the challenge of portraying the tragic arc of a man with ideals in a dirty world. As a result, his story and his character grip the audience with the most force.
Like Clooney’s other political movie, 2005’s “Good Night and Good Luck,” “The Ides of March” moves slowly and it’s important to keep track of details. However, the plot’s momentum does build energy. By the end of the film, whole scenes can be carried out by a smoldering exchange of glances between characters — which might sound boring, but when paired with the film’s ominous soundtrack and dark setting makes for a nail-biting experience.
The political tragedy has been done before — like in 2006’s “All the King’s Men.” But “The Ides of March” looks at the people who make politicians rather than the politicians themselves. More importantly, the film does so in a post-Clinton, post-Spitzer, post-Weiner world where scandals are so easily revealed. While the rules and the technology involved in the political game might have changed, the story has not, and though “The Ides of March” exposes some flaws in the political system, it doesn’t suggest that they can be changed.