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Josh Reviews The Ides of March

November 21st, 2011
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It’s been a while since I’ve seen a good, angry political thriller, so I quite enjoyed George Clooney’s latest directorial feature, The Ides of March. Perhaps thriller is the wrong word, since that word conjures thoughts of films featuring mysteries or action/suspense or damsels in distress.  And while there is an unfortunate damsel in The Ides of March who is subject to a great deal of distress, when I write “thriller” I refer not to the presence of any violent murder in the plot, but rather to the film’s bubbling sense of dread and urgency, which builds to a fierce boil as the story approaches its climax.

George Clooney is a fine actor.  I’ve long held that he — like Brad Pitt — is a far better actor than he needs to be, what with his movie-star looks.  But while Mr. Clooney might be a fine actor, he’s a damn magnificent director.  His first feature, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, remains one of my very favorite films ever (and the movie that cemented my abiding appreciation for the great Sam Rockwell), and his second, Good Night, and Good Luck, is an equally beautiful, confident, urgent piece of work.  There’s a direct line that can be drawn from the beating political heart of Good Night, and Good Luck, about Edward R. Murrow’s stand against McCarthyism, to the Ides of March.

Set during several tumultuous days leading up to the Ohio Democratic primary, The Ides of March stars Ryan Gosling (who blew my mind, back in the day, in The Believer — and, if you’ve never seen it, go out and find that searing film about a young Jewish boy who becomes a neo-Nazi) as Stephen Meyers, the idealistic number two in the campaign of Democratic presidential hopeful Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney).  I’m loathe to reveal any details of the plot, but suffice to say things get a little rough for Stephen and his candidate.  The Ides of March casts its gaze at the dirty back-room political in-fighting that goes on behind the scenes, far away from the bright lights of the network camera crews.  The film clearly has some broad points to make about our modern political races, but the film is first and foremost a gripping dramatic tale.

Ryan Gosling is terrific, charismatic and compelling as Stephen.  He plays the film’s light early scenes with grace and charm, clearly showing us why Stephen has, at a young age, become such a skilled political operator.  When things turn increasingly desperate, Mr. Gosling takes us right down the rabbit hole along with him, and the genius of the film is the way in which we’re forced to wonder, in the final scenes, just who the “good guy” in the film is after all.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are perfectly cast as the two powerful campaign managers between whom Stephen finds himself caught.  Both are a delight to watch, and both characters feel like they could be the stars of their own spin-off films.  Evan Rachel Wood is luminously beautiful as the spunky campaign worker who catches Stephen’s eye, but she also brings real depth to the role, showing us in just a few moments that she’s a strong, formidable young woman.  Marisa Tomei has a small but important role as a New York Times reporter, Ida, who can switch from friend to foe on a dime if she smells a good scoop.  Jeffrey Wright (hope he’s in the next Bond film!), Max Minghella (familiar to fans of The Social Network), and Jeffrey Itzin (the villains Charles Logan from 24, and by the way, it’s only in typing that name that I realize, years later, how the 24 writers must have been HUGE X-Men fans) all pop up in small but well-performed roles that flesh out the ensemble.

I’m about to begin, tomorrow, a series of cartoons making fun of this past summer’s big dumb robot movie.  In the light of Hollywood’s ever-increasing fixation with those types of brain-cell-killing spectacles, it’s all the more praiseworthy when a studio releases such a smart, well-written and well-acted film that is aimed squarely at adults who are willing to think a little bit while being entertained in a darkened movie theatre.  This one is a winner.

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