Sunday, 25 December 2011

“I think…that we are solid”

The Ides of March: directed by George Clooney; written by George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon
Those interested in Roman history or Shakespeare aficionados would know that despite little literal significance in the term, due to its somewhat oblique relation to Caesar’s death it has become indicative of bad things about to happen. So, with that mind and taking note that The Ides of March, Clooney’s latest directorial offering, focuses on a Junior Campaign manager attacking his job with a fervour rooted not in the thirst for winning, but in the firm belief that he’s fighting a battle worth fighting for we’re probably likel to know that things will come awry. In an early scene of the film, easily set up as the lone believer in a world of cynics Steve waxes on about his belief in the congressman he represents and the deliberate nature of the scene identifies itself as significant not only for its own existence, but as a set-up to impending disaster. It does not surprise me, then, that The Ides of March is an adaptation of a stage play. It is deliberately structured; the chronological developments, the character beats and revelations are all precisely delineated and established. It’s an assuredness that vaguely gives way to cautiousness on occasion and yet I never doubt that it’s getting its point across in the way which it intends to. Not that fulfilling one’s own purpose is proof of a good film, but The Ides of March - as passé a statement as it is – lies less in what it has to say and more in how. For me, at least.

I’ve been encountering a single problem in so many of my review attempts this past year. What constitutes a good film? Or, more accurately, how do I make it so the distribution of grades does not seem overly arbitrary? A facet of The Ides of March which immediately revealed itself to me was its glossiness. It’s for all intents and purposes a movie, and even as the entire cast delivers on performances I’m never moved to believe that the machinations are real. And, yet, I’d proffer that this in no way reduces the film’s ability to deliver. For, like the same way in which it teems with its deliberateness it exists as a sort of allegory. But, the emblematic purpose to excise is not one rooted particularly in political manner. It’s perhaps erroneous on my part to think so, but the real parable to assess here is the effect the world has in making you jaded. For, in my eyes, The Ides of March is a character study in the guise of a political thriller and that foreboding thing that happens is – as quaint as it sounds – the loss of innocence and hope.

This loss of innocence occurs amidst the Ohio primary where two Democratic candidates are facing off for the title of Presidential candidates. Less interested in the candidates, at least initially, what we are presented with is a face-off teasingly hinted at (and sadly, one which does not quite unfold in the climatic way you’d imagine) between the campaign managers of the two candidates played by Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman) working for Morris and Tom (Paul Giamatti) advisor to Pullman. The The young Stephen despite his genius level Stephen is a minor player in the big leagues, assistant to Paul and with an overwhelming shrewdness he’s still idealistic in that way of the very green. Even though we know that there shall befall out soon, it’s a credit to Clooney’s directorial technique (but, more importantly, the script) that the first act doesn’t overplay it. We know we’re heading for a fallout and we’re not sure what, so as Stephen seems to be on the brink of being pilfered by the opposing candidates, as he dodges reporters adeptly and engages in a hook-up with a young intern we’re still not precisely sure how said fallout will occur. When a certain affiance is revealed then we let out a sigh of relief. The cards are on the table and now we shall see how they’re played. And, it’s sort of inevitable that after the second big reveal occur and things begin to spiral out of control the film dips in quality the slightest bit.

It is in the first half of the closing act where The Ides of March is at its weakest, and if I am to consider its harshest critics a significant amount of their discontent could probably be traced to that portion. What point do Clooney and company make by showing how dirty politics can be? How does the ultimate revelation of human chess playing merit consideration? And yet, I’d be hard-pressed to criticise The Ides of March for not languishing in palpable innovation of ideas. It sounds like a copout – and I’m writing it – but good writing doesn’t rest in necessarily “fresh” writing and even if well-worn paths are treaded it doesn’t negate the crispness of the script. Considering the impetus of the story, this could have made for a particularly arid escapade but the script for its precision is never overwrought and better yet the film benefits from a superlative cast doing excellent work.

It does not sound like a sincere compliment, but the actors are so good in their roles that they end up making me dissatisfied that this wasn’t an ensemble piece. Not that Gosling doesn’t hold the film down; he’s excellent giving in my (minority) opinion a rounder more satisfying performance than his already good work in Drive. Giamatti and Hoffman – the former in particular – both thrive in roles that are finely played but titillate with offering us depth which the film doesn’t have time to examine. Clooney, the weakest of the main six does a fine job. Like his directing there are moments of genius, immediately followed by some oddball choices (the film is occasionally exasperating because of the direction, which doesn’t prevent the film from working but makes it just a bit harder). Ultimately, it’s the female duo of Wood and Tomei, who ironically fare best. They both are plot propellants in the best of ways, and Tomei’s role in particular is rather short but the two women offer such full performances with such little time. The admission price is worth it just to see how they fare. And I haven’t even mentioned the excellent bit roles embodied by the rest of the cast particularly Jennifer Ehle in a slight role and Max Minghella being brilliant in yet another thankless sidekick role.
What makes a good movie? That’s a post for another time, if ever. But, I left The Ides of March feeling rather satisfied. Clooney’s directing style does contain its oddities, but the good outweighs the bad impressively. The directing is the most deliberate aspect (the times the American insignia is in a scene with a character, for example) but it works ultimately – for example the organic correlative nature between the opening and close. The script impressed me, the acting wholly captivated me and for me that, I suppose is enough. Does it offer anything new? No, but…in the face of a solid offering who cares?

B+...but, perhaps, the lowest tier of B+


Dan O. said...

This is entertaining even if suspense barely builds and pay-off revelations come with little surprise. Clooney, as a director, is also able to draw-out amazing performances from this whole ensemble cast. Great review Andrew

Paolo said...

The reason I probably like The Ides of March over Good Night and Good Luck is because the latter seems like a sleepy last call in a jazz bar while the former prepares its audience for the ride. And even if the stakes are the same in other political movies, it's still thrilling to watch these people lose what they've been working for.