The Ides of March, 2011.
Directed by George Clooney.
Starring George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Max Minghella and Jennifer Ehle.
Steven Mayer is an idealistic, Democratic campaign manager. The events of the Ohio Primary push him to turn on his morals and become the sort of man he originally set out to vanquish.
“Stay in this game long enough and it’ll make you a cynical, old man,” yells an aggressively hunched Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the rival’s Campaign Manager, his portly stomach stretching the fibres of his shirt.
That’s a pretty cliché line for a political drama. It’s about as revolutionary as “everyone in politics is corrupt,” or “politicians will let you down” – both of which The Ides of March also explores.
It ain’t nothing new, but that works tremendously in its favour. By using these well-trodden messages of the political drama, George Clooney (as both Governor Mike Morris and the film’s director) is able to feel around in other parts of the room. There’s maturity in the way he relies on such an old formula.
Because at its core, The Ides of March isn’t really a film about politics – it’s a film about Steven Meyers (Ryan Gosling), Morris’ Junior Campaign Manager. They’re running for the Democratic presidential candidate, who, in the face of a weak Republican competition, would most likely become the next President of the United States.
“Stay in this game long enough and it’ll make you a cynical, old man.” Reading it like that, without context, it sounds like a warning; someone speaking from experience, cautioning of the job’s perils. But when Duffy spits it, as he walks away from Steven (Ryan Gosling), it could easily be misconstrued as an insult, as though being a cynical, old man is some revered status; that being a cynical, old man shows you’ve succeeded at the job.
There’s a lot of this in The Ides of March. Characters will speak one line, but their tone will contort its meaning to the opposite; usually venomous, always implied. “It’ll all be over soon,” Steven gently consoles Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) as she waits for an abortion. “Yeah,” she dejectedly replies. It is her delivery and glance of daggers that adds: “for you.”
Most scenes are like this - simply two characters conversing back and forth. This is presumably because the film is an adaptation of Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North. Clooney prevents the staginess from invading the screen by constantly changing the surroundings and rooms in which they talk. Take that, theatre.
The writing is very tight and the performances are sublime. Alongside the aforementioned, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Paul Zara, Morris’ Senior Campaign Manager, and Marisa Tomei is a manipulative reporter named Ida. The women are reunited from The Wrestler; PSH and Giamatti are the best actors working today; Ryan Gosling has been the next big thing for a while.
Clooney hardly experiments with the film’s direction, but this is not a flaw. The actors and script are good enough. Too much emphasis on the visuals would dilute its strengths. Instead, his technique is simple: in these duologue scenes, the camera’s distance between the two characters is judged on their intimacy. When Molly, the Intern, and Steven, the up and coming Junior Campaign Manager, flirt in a bar, the camera is held tightly on each face. It’s the standard shot/reverse shot pattern, but the camera’s closeness contrasts with the professional distance observed in other scenes. They are so close that neither is afforded their own shot. A tuft of Molly’s hair from the back of her head obscures part of Steven’s cheek throughout. They invade each other’s framings. Your mind imagines them almost leaning over the table to get closer to one another.
An occasional, slow montage of people walking with papers/on airplanes/in cars/going down stairs/talking heatedly separates the dialogue scenes. Each one is set against a faux-patriotic drumbeat, as though the percussionist has already lost faith in his country, much like those onscreen gradually are.
‘Character development’ is a term tossed around a lot. Most films have their ‘character development’ as people overcoming fears/maturing and settling down with someone (see: all of Judd Apatow)/etc. The Ides of March details a more profound change, of the deconstruction of a man’s beliefs and principles. “Stay in this game long enough and it’ll make you a cynical old man,” Paul Giamatti goads. “Like you?” Steven sharply replies.
Giamatti and PSH are used more sparingly than you would think for their billing. The film is Gosling’s, really – just like Drive before it. The heavy, balding figures that Giamatti and PSH cut pose a possible glimpse into Steven’s future.
“Stay in this game long enough and it’ll make you a cynical, old man.” Still fresh faced, only 30, and he doesn’t do things unless he believes in them. But when this line is delivered, at this point in the film, Steven is in danger of being fired from the job for which he lives. The game has conspired against him because of one false move.
And the thought of loosing it twists and corrupts him until he becomes a man he would have detested at the start. Now that’s ‘character development’.
365 Days, 100 Films