It’s an election year -- it doesn’t matter which -- and Gov. Mike Morris of Pennsylvania appears to be the Democratic Party’s golden boy for their presidential nomination. He’s played by George Clooney, and thus looks and sounds just as charming. Many voters seem to have been won over by his rhetoric and charisma, but many isn’t most, which means it’s up to staffers like Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) to do everything they can to turn the tide.
Myers, an admitted idealist, is seduced by Morris, by everything he promises and everything he represents as a candidate, and he’s willing to tell New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) as much. Myers then finds himself momentarily seduced by rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) to simply meet and discuss the prospect of the young gun switching teams -- an offer that he’s less than willing to inform his boss, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), about. Finally, Myers is splendidly seduced by intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), and it’s these little actions and best intentions that will come to swiftly and significantly compromise Stephen’s idyllic worldview.
For the fourth time in his career, Clooney has stepped behind the camera, and alongside co-writers Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon (on whose play this film is based), he elevates the cagey script from a potentially stagy execution. The Ides of March is a morality tale that transcends its political trappings enough to resemble a classic tragedy (thus, the titular evocation of Julius Caesar), and just about every other scene in the film is a simple pleasure unto itself between the equally confident writing, direction, and performances.
Many of the supporting actors find themselves working in two modes: Clooney displays charm and menace with equal ease, Hoffman bluster and defensiveness, Giamatti cattiness and resignation, Tomei playfulness and pushiness, Wood vivacity and vulnerability. They play well off of one another, all too happy to contribute their own turns of the screw, but each is even better when pitted opposite Gosling and his terrific lead performance. His Stephen is experienced enough at his age to presume that he knows better and young enough to still display the critical amount of conviction and cockiness that gets the ball rolling, and to watch him sweat it out as recklessness mutates into retribution is only further testament to Gosling’s seemingly effortless achievement of being both as charming and churning as the role requires.
As a director, Clooney’s straightforward work here harkens back to a '70s-specific directness, from the plainly presented opening titles on down. The palette of Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography grows colder as the circumstances do, while medium shots keep the conversations jumping, close-ups keep the confrontations jolting, and the wider scenes reinforce the scope of the impact that this one primary could potentially have on the face of a nation. One especially well-conveyed scene takes place on either side of the American flag, with Clooney’s character framed perfectly against the stars on the front as he gives a speech, while a panicked Gosling and livid Hoffman have a critical exchange against the red-and-white stripes from behind -- a simple dichotomy of color that handily mirrors the shades of either participant’s face at the given moment. In kind, Stephen Mirrione’s editing is itself brisk and sharp throughout, two qualities reflected by the film as a whole.
Despite being set in the arena of politics, Ides is a less overtly polemic film than Good Night, and Good Luck. was, opting instead to trade in character foibles and underhanded schemes in order to keep an audience’s attention. At the start of the film, we’re meant to mistake Stephen for the next presidential candidate, and by the end, it’s implied that he might have a thick enough skin to actually be president someday. He’d know better, though, because if that ever turned out to be the case, there would be another Stephen or Paul or Tom standing right behind him, pulling all the strings.