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USA 2011
Directed by
George Clooney
103 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

Ides Of March, The

Synopsis:  Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) wants the Democratic nomination for President. March 15 is the date of the Ohio Primary, a critical step along the road to the White House for him, his campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his chief strategist, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling).

It is probably coincidental that George Clooney’s latest directorial effort has been released a week after Moneyball but the two films have much in common and can be seen as two sides of the same coin.

Both films represent the best that mainstream Hollywood film-making has to offer and both are concerned with a core value of American culture: winning. That one has the context of sport, the other of politics is a relatively minor difference. The big difference is their take on the matter. Moneyball gives us, in essence, the inspirational message that it’s how you play the game that matters, not whether you win or lose. It’s about integrity and the best that people can be. The Ides Of March is its polar opposite. It’s about winning at any cost and how that ethic destroys the goodness that often gets people into the game in the first place. The errancy comes about not through evil intent or bad nature but through making the wrong choices, and then one thing leading to another, and so on.

Based on an off-Broadway play, Farragut North, by Beau Willimon, who gets a writing credit along with Clooney and his regular script collaborator, Grant Heslov, The Ides Of March is a fine account of how decent people lose their way. Yes, it is about politics, and the dirty deals done behind its façade of probity, and in this respect it is ruthlessly good, but its real strength is in its multi-faceted depiction of the ever-present ensnarements of self-deception.

This moral lesson is economically realized in the journey that Stephen takes, starting out as an enthusiastic believer in the cause and ending as its stone-eyed spin doctor, but it is also reflected in the face of Clooney’s Governor Morris, a man whose ideals are out-manoeuvered by an indifferent reality. The beauty of The Ides Of March is that this stripping away of illusion is done with finesse. No doubt Beau Willimon’s play is the foundation, but Clooney and his team do a superb job of realizing it on screen.

Whilst Moneyball was skilfully packaged around Brad Pitt, Clooney takes a back seat to Ryan Gosling, very much the man of the moment these days. It is a good strategy. The charismatically handsome director is spot-on playing the face of the campaign and it is down to Gosling to bear our scrutiny which he does, his relatively boyish openness gradually hardening over the course of the film which ends with a close-up of the very different man he has become. On the second tier, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti provide a fine Punch and Judy show as opposing campaign generals and somewhat further back Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood round out the first class cast.

From Watergate to Zippergate American politics have been dragged through the mud and the Bush-Cheney years, as we have seen in films like this year's The Whistleblower, stripped them naked and urinated on them. The Ides Of March speaks very much to that time. It is a deeply disillusioned film. There is no trace of the hope that the Obama administration seemed to represent, at least briefly, and looked at socio-historically that feels a little odd although no doubt it is simply a reflection of the realities of the film’s production. But, political and historical references aside, in terms of form, The Ides Of March is a gripping thriller.  There are betrayals, double-crosses and plot twists aplenty and editor, Stephen Mirrione, who, amongst many other first class films, has Traffic (2000) and Babel (2006) to his credit, does a sleek job of pacing the story. Alexandre Desplat’s score also contributes significantly to the mounting tension and sense of darkness unfolding.

Clooney is a Hollywood A-lister, but as good as it is, I can’t see his film making it to the Oscars as no doubt Moneyball will, although for me it is the more emotionally impacting film.  It is simply too dark a vision of American politics to feature in Hollywood's night of nights.

FYI: Those interested might like to compare Clooney's film to István Szabó's Mephisto which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar, the operative word here, of course, being "foreign", in 1981.

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