Movie Review: The Ides of March

George Cluny in The Ides of March
George Clooney. (Photo supplied)

Movie Reviews
By Bernie Jablonski

I was talking once with my friend, the late, great Rick Zagone. He said that a play he was pushing for the next year’s season in our community theater was David Mamet’s GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. Not wanting to be left out of the conversation, I told him that I had read the script (I had), but didn’t really understand it because I didn’t understand real estate. In a fit of what I thought, at the time, was ersatz philosophical blather, he said that it wasn’t about real estate, but was about dreams, or the relationships between men, or working under pressure, or something like that. I just rolled my eyes and turned away. (Probably turned away first. I liked Rick.)

Rick, you were right. I was too young to realize that if the play had been about real estate, it would have been undramatic- a scholarly monologue, or at best a debate. Drama is at its heart, about relationships and conflict, not about subjects (no news here, right?). I was hoping that, having drifted away from the news and political reporting because it made me sad or angry (with the irony being that I now watch loads of LAW AND ORDER instead- no sadness or anger there), I still would be able to relate intelligently to the politics, and understand what was going on.

I come from a solid family of Nort’west Side Democrats, with only one brother a convert Republican because, I kid you not, he wanted to piss my father off. The movie is set during a hotly contested Iowa caucus, and the focus is on two Democratic candidates, one rarely if ever seen, and the other played by George Clooney. I was able to relate not only because I embrace Democratic ideology, but I, too, find myself thinking that the government is floundering. And, like anything concerning the Democratic Party, I experience an initial feeling of hope…

Have you seen the poster for this movie? Ryan Gosling is holding a copy of TIME magazine over half his face. The magazine is folded lengthwise. On the cover is George Clooney’s face, with the caption “Our Next President?” The two faces blend. Symbolism noted. I also was conscious, several times during the movie, of how similar Gosling and Clooney do appear, about as many times as I noticed the emphasis on hands touching things in CONTAGION. Creepy, and very effective.

Clooney plays Mike Morris, a governor who is a hopeful for the Democratic nominee for President. Gosling is Stephen Myers, his press agent, directly responsible to Morris’ campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Things appear to be going well, the Iowa caucus seems to be in the bag, until Myers is asked to meet with the campaign manager (Paul Giamatti) of Morris’ opponent. Myers very cautiously agrees to do this, and is not only courted to jump ship and join the opposing campaign, but is told that a Senator (and former candidate, rife with over two hundred delegates that will swing to whichever candidate he tell them to) is not the lock for the Morris campaign that everyone thought he was.

My father had three favorite saying. One was “Too soon ve get old und too late ve get schmart,” (this on one of those shellacked pieces of wood with bark still on it that you could get in some shop in the Dells). Another was, “Keep your fingernails trim- it’s the best way to avoid nosebleed.” And finally, and this is the one with the most resonance: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Paul’s simple act of curiosity (powered by a real need to see what the other side knows) perfectly exemplifies this statement.

To the credit of the editors of IDES’ promotional commercial, you aren’t prepared for what goes on in the rest of the movie. Two choices made by Stephen open up the possible road downhill, and I ain’t saying nuthin’. Instead, chew on this: Did you notice the stellar array of great, great actors in this movie? Clooney (and I’m sure I’m only the 5,364,922th person to say this) is someone I would vote for. Morris says things that reach to the liberal in me, and I believe him, and he seems honestly convinced that he could make these sweeping changes. There is a nice, tender scene with his wife (Jennifer Ehle), and everything seems fine for him (and us).

Giamatti, as usual, is utterly convincing as a man who can open doors, but is smart enough to know when to slam them shut. There is a keenly manipulative mind dwelling under the seemingly friendly exterior, and he is a joy to watch. And what can you say about Hoffman, in a role that seems rough-hewn and threatening (which is what I got from the commercial) that winds up being, probably, the most sympathetic part in the movie? (the last movie I reviewed for this paper was MONEYBALL, and he gave a great, quietly intimidating performance in that. I’m going to demand of my boss that every movie I review has P.S.H. in it.)

Marisa Tomei, who, in the words of Roger Ebert, only gets more beautiful with age, is actually rather dowdy here, but displaying razor-sharp claws as a relentless New York Times reporter. Jeffrey Wright scores as the charismatic yet venal and selfish Senator who yields his delegates.

Which brings us, of course, to Ryan Gosling. Outside of some episodes of YOUNG HERCULES that I saw with my sister’s kids when they were little, my introduction to him was DRIVE, which I saw last week. It was hard to shake his image of a soft-spoken (yet effective) anti-hero from that movie, especially in the opening secenes of IDES, but as the layers got cast off, I became more and more impressed. He’s not an actor who dominates a scene, like Clooney, but actually shares the scene while letting his presence be known. A close-up of his face opens and closes the film, and it is quite the journey he takes us on between those shots. Character, of course, is about change, and almost none of the characters in this movie are what they seem to be at first blush. Which, of course, is what makes it entertaining for us.

You don’t need to brush up on politics to enjoy this movie. Just be prepared for a supremely well-acted, engrossing movie about people’s motives and how they clash with those of other people. (And the play the movie is based on, FARRAGUT NORTH, is playing at Theater Wit on Belmont in Chicago. Did I hear someone say, “Field trip?”

BTW: Yes, you should see DRIVE, especially if you like your neo-noir reminiscent of kicky 1980s movies like STREETS OF FIRE. Much has been made of the soundtrack, and much to my surprise, it is comprised almost entirely of songs by female artists, giving it quite a dreamy, ethereal sound. Combine that with wonderful shots of nighttime driving in California, and if you’re like me, you’ll be in movie heaven. Performances are great all around, with Gosling once again being a rich part of the entire fabric. (Road to hell, indeed!) Carey Mulligan is a great, gentle, vulnerable foil for Gosling, and of the great supporting cast, Albert Brooks stood out, for me, as a schmoozing, yet vicious gangster. His performance was a real eye-opener. It was good to see Christina Hendricks outside of her MAD MEN comfort zone. Remember going in, though, that this movie is extremely violent.

Bernie Jablonski teaches Mass Media and Film Study in the Fine Arts Department at Marian Catholic High School.