Primary Concern, by Scott Nye
The Ides of March is at once George Clooney’s most accomplished film, and the first where his familiar tendencies started to feel like crutches. Since blasting out of the gate with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Clooney seems particularly aware of the need to make his films “cinematic” – actors-turned-directors are often slighted for their sparse visual style in favor of performance-driven films – and that one was particularly rife with visual tricks to make sure we knew Clooney was a filmmaker, dammit.
His next two films – Good Night, and Good Luck and Leatherheads – were more toned-down, though Good Night was shot in black-and-white and admittedly I don’t really recall much about Leatherheads, but the ol’ Clooney spark is back with a vengeance this time around. But whereas Confessions had a certain snap and energy to it, Ides does feel occasionally weighed down, stopping and starting as so many adaptations of stage plays do, rather than humming along. You can tell Clooney knows when he has a real zinger of a scene, because they’re the ones in which he doesn’t feel the need to make the camera – or worst of all, the sound design – the subject. Those aren’t inherently bad approaches to filmmaking, but they feel antithetical to the overall impression with which the film is trying to leave you.
In it, Ryan Gosling plays Steven Myers, the Junior Campaign Manager for (fictional) Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris’ (George Clooney) run for President. Without giving too much away, the general trajectory of the text is Steven’s gradual disillusionment with the political process, though it is much to Clooney’s credit that the film isn’t nearly as pat as that synopsis suggests. Gosling brings tremendous bravado to his role, playing Steven as a guy who definitely believes all the way in what Morris believes and what he represents, but is much more fond of himself. He may bemoan dirty politics, but those moves are quite often his first resort. In an early scene, he suggests a plan that would make mandatory two years of some form of government service upon every citizen’s eighteenth birthday in exchange for college tuition, noting that everyone over 18 will support it, and everyone under 18 is too young to vote.
His maneuvers will grow increasingly self-serving and cut far closer to home as the film wears on, but suffice to say that this is hardly the “fall of innocence” story that it sets itself up to be. Rather, it becomes a cool examination of the self-preservation instinct we all share, and that no matter what the face of politics – be it the candidate himself, his campaign staff, an intern – everybody touts the horn that what they’re doing is good for the people or the process or whatever, but they all have an agenda.
And in spite of Clooney’s shortcomings as a director (too many “thoughtful” montages, too much dialogue skipped over, too many tricks in the sound design when a naturalistic version would have been much more effective), it’s actually quite a good film. His strengths are as notable as his weaknesses, and much more prevalent. He effortlessly frames the campaign office and bus in a way to be as inclusive as possible, visually illustrating how close people become in such an environment (an important undercurrent not directly addressed in the text). And when it’s crucial to show these people when they’ve cut themselves off, or think they have, Clooney is quick to establish a scene with a wide shot of a mostly-empty room. And that’s to say nothing of the performances.
A cast boasting Gosling, Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, and Evan Rachel Wood raises expectations considerably, and they hardly disappoint. Hoffman and Giamatti in particular are just delightful, rising considerably beyond the stock parts they’re given to play (Hoffman the hardworking idealist finally getting his due, Giamatti the conniving competition), or at least finding the depth key to such archetypes. The saying goes that 90% of a director’s job is done in casting, but this group edges a little further beyond that. Beyond their obvious strengths as performers, they’re all strong vocal presences that, beyond being a pleasure to listen to, instantly denote where each person is coming from.
The film takes place during the final weeks of the Democratic primary, and the political mood, while not exactly spelled out, feels very 2009 in that whoever takes this will surely go all the way. It’s maybe a little too far in framing Morris as a liberal’s dream come true – he makes no bones about not being a Christian, something that would crush a candidate in a real election – but it’s also important given the current mood amongst liberals in this country, that dawning realization that everyone’s out for something, regardless of what they might have said. It’s both more complex than it appears on the surface, and a little less in terms of the dramatic conflict inherent to the material and its initial presentation thereof.