Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Coldness Of Politics, The Ides Of March.

The Good: Decent story, Most of the acting, Most of the character work
The Bad: Details with the characters, Clooney's acting, Some of Clooney's directoral choices.
The Basics: The Ides Of March has most of the makings of a great film, but never pops to get out of the "good movie" rut.

It is a rare thing that I have the chance to talk with someone right after a movie is over about the film, but tonight, when someone at the screening for The Ides Of March politely asked me to move seats so she could sit beside her husband, I tried to discourage her by telling her I was a reviewer and that I'd be writing with my left hand, which might be inconvenient to her. This did not have the desired effect. And, after the film was over, she asked me what I thought of the movie and after she left, the guy on my other side struck up a conversation with me on it. I was surprised because I actually had some real concrete thoughts on the film immediately and when he asked questions about how the movie could have been reordered to make it more interesting, I had thoughts on his ideas, pretty quickly. But what struck me was right off the bat, his question to me was, "what are you going to rate it?" and he didn't seem at all phased when I came back pretty much right away with "seven out of ten."

The Ides Of March is a seven out of ten film; it could have been great, but it doesn't quite get there. And it won't be reworked, because it comes out tomorrow. But the film was one I was excited to see, because when I saw Crazy Stupid Love. (reviewed here!), I was more than a little wowed by Ryan Gosling. The idea of a political thriller with him, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti was enough to get me to go out on a cold night. And when Evan Rachel Wood made her first appearance, I thought, "Yea! This is going to be wonderful!" But the movie never quite popped and the unfortunate truth is that most of the problems come from George Clooney. Clooney takes an uncharacteristic amount of blame because he is surprisingly uncharismatic as an actor, focused on poorly when he is directing himself and he co-wrote the script which had some moments where smart characters do uncharacteristically stupid things for people in that business.

Mike Morris is the governor of Pennsylvania and he is in a tight Democratic primary for president against Arkansas senator Pullman. Neck and neck going into Ohio, it appears that Morris has a slight advantage and might well be the Democratic nominee in a contest where it appears the Republicans cannot mount a victory. Working for his campaign are Stephen and Paul, with Paul working as chief campaign strategist. While Paul solicits an endorsement from the influential senator from North Carolina that will put the Morris campaign mathematically over the top, Stephen works to keep things at headquarters running smoothly. Following the debate between Morris and Pullman, though, Stephen is given an enigmatic phone call from Pullman's Campaign strategist, Tom and against his judgment, Stephen takes the meeting.

Tom shares with Stephen internal tracking numbers that show Pullman winning the Ohio primary because of that state's open primary ballot, where Independents and Republicans can vote in the Democratic primary. Tom asks Stephen to jump ship and join Pullman's campaign to help take the heat off the Right helping Pullman with the state. As Stephen wrestles with both the decision and whether or not to disclose to Paul and Morris himself, Stephen gets involved with a senior interns, Molly. And as he and Molly become closer, a late-night phone call to her phone clues Stephen in to the idea that all is not right with the campaign.

The Ides Of March does some things very right. First, it is stylish in the way it is shot, in terms of color schemes. Clooney films the movie to look perpetually cold and there is a strikingly sterile mood to the piece that accents the ugly dogfight between the two Democrat candidates.

As well, the characters are universally interesting. Morris is a likable enough guy with a real sense of vision. Stephen describes him idealistically as a man who will actually change people's lives and when he says it to the jaded reporter, Ida, it is almost enough to make us believe it. Stephen seems caught in a real bind and watching him wrestle with that decision is interesting at the very least. But watching Tom explain his game is even better. There is a magnetic quality to politics when it is played and The Ides Of March captures quite well the sense of gamesmanship that professional politicians are engaged in.

And most of the acting is decent. Evan Rachel Wood steals virtually every scene as Molly. She becomes the new Meryl Streep as Molly and had the film been made forty years ago, it would have have been her. But the movie is now and Wood rocks the part with more than just Hollywood good looks. She has matured into a woman with substance, quiet and precise delivery and a real presence. She holds her own with Gosling and dominates on a screen where Giamatti and Hoffman are playing some of their best game.

But the wonderful performances highlight just how frigid Clooney is and the movie gets too many things wrong to allow the viewer to become fully immersed. First, Clooney seems to be shooting himself in the foot twice as fast and with unusually heavy gauges of shotguns. Pardon the splitting metaphors, but the two notes I have for Clooney's acting in my notes are "stiff" and "restrained." And I have a theory. . . .

. . . welcome to Oscar Pandering Season! Here's the theory: George Clooney is a nice guy, but with The Ides Of March he is making a serious bid in the 2011 Oscar Pandering Season. My theory is, Clooney's a swell enough guy to think there's enough to go around and this year, what he's after is the Best Director nod. Sure, he'd like The Ides Of March to get Best Picture (it won't happen), because with him as an actor, director, producer and writer for it, his already golden name becomes platinum for five year's worth of contracts. But I don't think Clooney is greedy, I think he wants his Best Director award, so he is setting Gosling up for Best Actor and maybe Wood up for a Supporting Actress. And they deserve it. But I think Clooney purposely is taking himself off the field for the Best Actor.

And that kills The Ides Of March. Here's why the above paragraph isn't just Monday Morning Quarterbacking: Clooney kills too much of The Ides Of March by setting Gosling up for Best Actor without performing to his own strengths. Clooney is so cold as Morris that virtually every viewer will watch the movie and ask, "Is this the best he can do?" and "How did this guy get to the place where he could credibly run for President?!" It's true. Clooney has any number of Presidential qualities, but in addition to being articulate and strong, he has always had charisma. Except in this movie. Morris is dull and when he pitches a plan to educate all of the children in the U.S., he sounds like he is writing a menu. When he gives speeches, he sounds like he is reading poorly off a teleprompter. It is only in the film's final speech that he actually becomes vibrant enough to be believable.

And Clooney directs as if his intent is to let everyone but him shine. In one of the film's more important, but subtle, scenes, Morris and his wife are talking in the car about the campaign. Clooney focuses more on her than on himself; for most of the scene only his lower jaw is in frame. Thus, the viewer is not privy to his reaction shots or even most of the emotion in his face and eyes and he conveys important ideas to the one character his character is supposed to be intimate with. So, he pretty much guts his own part in the movie and the only saving grace is that the other actors pick it up wonderfully.

Even so, the movie is not flawless. Marisa Tomei's reporter character Ida, ostensibly in the movie to illustrate Stephen's arc from idealist to jaded may add realistic depth and complexity to the movie, but it beats the thematic horse to death. But the biggest problems in character come from Stephen. Stephen is supposed to be an expert gamer in the political machinations that surround him. And yet, he makes three mistakes that I caught instantly. Without ruining anything substantive to the film, here are some political mistakes made that "experts" in the field do not usually make:
1. They do not sit and have drinks with underage campaign interns (Molly in 20 and she is drinking in Kentucky at a bar with Stephen, where the drinking age is 21),
2. They do not pull money from the campaign to pay hush money from (always have your own cash on hand to pay off people!),
and 3. When dealing with unstable people whom you have just fired, always make sure they actually go in to their appointments; don't leave them in a waiting room.

Sadly, my biggest gripe with the film is that the movie isn't quite smart enough to make issues with these, instead focusing on a much more manageable faux pas with Stephen taking Tom's meeting. Those of us spoiled by The West Wing (reviewed here!) will be underwhelmed with the conflict in The Ides Of March and miss snappy dialogue and characters that pop and candidates we actually care about. The Ides Of March is cold, primary politics cold and while it does a lot right, it mostly just leaves the viewer feeling frigid.

For other political movies, please check out my reviews of:
Fahrenheit 9/11
Charlie Wilson's War
You're Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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