Thoughts on Ides of March
The Ides of March takes place in the dirty world of politics, a world where ordinary people do extraordinarily nasty things. In the name of party, in the name of country, and even in the name of God, they act on behalf of the only name that they fail to announce: their own. They seek personal advancement to an inner circle occupied not exclusively by fame and fortune—if that is all they sought, other career paths would twinkle more brightly—but more importanly, by influence. Appearing to tell the truth is more effectual than actually doing so, and loyalty becomes more of a theoretical concept than a practical value if getting ahead happens to entail trampling on the backs of those who helped you arrive at your position in the first place.
To delve into these murky waters, we need a navigator: and here, we have it in the form of committed staffer Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling). Stephen has “drunk the Kool-Aid” that presidential hopeful Mike Morris (George Clooney) has been selling, and he’s so addicted to the rhetoric that he actually believes it to be something more than rhetoric. Morris, like a lot of campaigning candidates, flashes the promise of social change throughout the heartland of America, and he hopes that the potentially game-changing swing-state of Ohio will drink his sugary Kool-Aid with as much enthusiasm as Stephen has. But things are, as ubiquitous taglines like to proclaim, rarely what they seem. Does the squeaky-clean Morris have skeletons in his closet? Is Stephen in for a rude awakening?
Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, this central conflict is not nearly as interesting as those at its outskirts. Marisa Tomei, as a seen-it-all journalist jockeying for an inside story, is dynamite in a role that relegates her to the margins, and Evan Rachel Wood breathes life into a character cut-out whose trajectory is predictably incomplete. The amazing Jeffrey Wright is given even less to work with, and Paul Giamatti does what you might expect as a manipulative rival campaign manager. There’s something to be said for a stacked ensemble, but when we’ve seen each of these actors in better roles, performances, and films, it effectively takes some wind out of the sails. Fairing better, as always, is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has some real scene-stealers and nails them all. Film after film, Hoffman never ceases to amaze me with the way that he works differences, subtle or broad, into every individual he has portrayed, culminating in a body of work wherein no two characters are close to identical. By now, I suppose it’s easy to say that Hoffman is “doing Hoffman,” but I think here, once again, he gives us some unique timing beats and some physical manifestations we’ve not seen before in this way, and they feel organic to the character rather than contrived by the actor. I could go on and on about Hoffman, but it will suffice to say that I think he’s quite simply the most consistent, powerful, versatile actor working right now. And he is, far and away, the best thing about this movie.
What about the faces—or is it face—occupying the posters, you might ask? Clooney is indeed a highlight, infusing a supporting but significant role with both surface charisma and hints at darker tones within. But Gosling, the man of the hour, doesn’t fully register in the skin of a character whose major traits are contradictory and ambiguous. Too cool to be a nerd, too smart to be a jock, experienced enough to be weathered, but apparently not experienced enough not to be naive, Stephen is a bag full of mysteries. He might be our eyes and ears, but he can’t be our conscious, because we don’t know from one minute to the next whether he has one in abundance or doesn’t have one at all. Don’t get me wrong: Gosling is always fun to watch, but he feels sort of out of place in a film that prioritizes plot over character. Gosling can scare you as a vitriolic bigot (The Believer) or a bloodthirsty getaway man (Drive); he can illicit waves of sympathy as a maladroit enigma in love with a doll (Lars and the Real Girl) or drug-addicted school-teacher (Half Nelson); and he can give what I think is one of the best performances ever committed to celluloid (Blue Valentine). But he can’t, at least not fully, make Stephen Meyers work: I’m not sure if it’s an issue of casting, writing, acting, or a combination of any of these, but something felt off to me.
When we’re dealing with a tale of corruption, it helps to have someone to identify with, someone to empathize with even if we don’t agree with all of their decisions. Whether it’s twelve angry jurors or five put-upon real-estate salesmen, movies like these benefit from trading in the human as heavily as in the inhumane. Nasty behavior is much more interesting if we connect with emotive forces compelling such behavior. The Ides of March just doesn’t operate on this level. Stephen, as an inscrutable blank slate, is meant to be the audience surrogate, but nothing that he does feels organic to a real functioning being; it only feels organic to a narrative that tells him who to be. And for a play adaptation, unlike the aforementioned Glengarry Glen Ross, for example, the dialogue cooks but never sizzles. Perhaps The Ides of March is the unfortunate by-product of overblown expectations (who can blame me, with pedigree like this?), but while it holds your attention, and sometimes more, for a trim 100 minutes, I can’t find much to take away. What’s more, I saw this movie on October 8 and just never felt compelled to spend much time reflecting on it. Far from horrendous but far from stupendous, Clooney’s latest offering of Kool-Aid might give you a bit of a sugar buzz, but it wore off pretty quickly on me.