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Review: The Ides of March (2011)

The Ides of March (2011)

Directed by: George Clooney

Premise: A high level staffer (Ryan Gosling) on a presidential campaign has a crisis of conscience when he makes unflattering discoveries about his candidate (George Clooney).

What Works: The Ides of March manages to be an intelligent story about politics and it evades some of the pitfalls of contemporary political stories. Like a lot of Hollywood political pictures, The Ides of March is told from the point of view of members of the Democratic Party. But what is unique about The Ides of March is that it does not idealize Democrats in a liberal struggle against Republicans and conservatives, nor does it climb on a liberal soap box and preach to the audience like films such as The American President. If anything, The Ides of March is critical of the Democratic Party and of the mechanics of contemporary politics and it makes that criticism in a story about characters who have been in the political racket for some time and who have been damaged by it in some way. Leading the film is Ryan Gosling as a man who has been in the trenches of political campaigns and who has seen the ugliness of politics and even been a participant in that ugliness. But this character has now found someone to believe in, or so he thinks, and that makes him a more interesting character than if the script had conceived him as merely a naïve idealist. Gossling’s character wants to believe in the candidate’s image, and more broadly he craves the possibility of integrity and redemption that the candidate represents, and when Clooney’s character fails to live up to those ideals, it sets the protagonist on a tailspin of regret and political backstabbing. Gossling’s character is surrounded by similar characters in the supporting roles such as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti as political advisors who have been made paranoid by their experiences and Marisa Tomei as a journalist whose personal relationships are secondary to her job. The interaction between these supporting characters and Gosling’s protagonist effectively fuel his downward spiral while also allowing him and the film moments of clarity as Gosling becomes the political adept. By its conclusion, The Ides of March has taken its main character and the audience through a process of disillusionment and afterward asks whether we can let go of our idealism while retaining our integrity. The film’s answer to this is appropriately ambiguous. 

What Doesn’t: The title The Ides of March refers to Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, the story of the Roman emperor who was betrayed by his friends and assassinated. The Ides of March reaches for that level of tragedy but there is little in it that has the equivalent dramatic weight. Clooney’s character is flawed but he hasn’t done anything so terrible as to convince either the characters or the audience that he should be disqualified from the presidency. Because of this, the motivation for Gosling’s character is dodgy and his actions in the second half of the story are erratic.

Bottom Line: The Ides of March manages to be an intelligent political thriller. Although it is flawed, the film is well made, features some very strong performances and intelligently dabbles in complex and ambiguous ethical dilemmas.

Episode: #359 (October 16, 2011)