By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 9, 2011 at 1:32AM
"The Ides of March" finds George Clooney working at the most intimate scale of his directing career. Since his uneven and overambitious debut almost a decade ago, the Charlie Kaufman-scripted "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," Clooney has tried his hand at a variety of material. After the ill-received slapstick period piece "Leatherheads," Clooney returns to the overt moralizing of "Good Night, and Good Luck." Here, he steps off the soapbox to soak in the ugly details behind American leadership, and gives his parable a darkly entertaining twist.
Adapted by Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov from Beau Willimon's off-Broadway play "Farragut North," the movie follows aggressive 30-year-old campaign press secretary Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) as he engulfs himself in a Democratic primary race in the hopes of setting suave liberal Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) on the path to the White House. Taking orders from the cunning veteran campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Myers embodies a prototypical newbie to the slimy underbelly of election strategy.
Hounded by a trenchant Times reporter tellingly named Ida (Marisa Tomei) and the menacing advisor to Morris' opponent (Paul Giamatti), Myers barrels forward with increasingly unreasonable confidence in his candidate. Threats arise in the form of blackmail and the inevitable sex scandals, which only embolden the young dreamer as his commitment to winning the game trumps any concern about the country's leadership.
With the constant backroom arguing and threats of media scrutiny, the plot plays out like political intrigue on autopilot; it shouldn't work as well as it does. The greatest credit goes to a widely agreeable set of performances. Giamatti may deliver a clichéd speech to knock down Gosling's idealism, but he enlivens it with jumpy cynicism. Hoffman's usual expression of muted frustration fits the role of a jaded veteran and Gosling was born to play this sort of young hustler (as he already has many times before). Evan Rachel Wood is convincing enough as a 20-year-old intern with a penchant for seduction, although she's more prop than character.
Then again, everyone and everything in "Ides of March" has symbolic value. Clooney has said that the focus on Democratic characters presumably shields "Ides of March" from being seen as a critique of right-wing archetypes; as a result, the screenplay is overwhelmingly non-specific. The governor's platforms surface in bits and pieces of debates and interviews, mostly through one-liners that hint at overarching ideas ("Society needs to be better than the individual," Clooney tells Charlie Rose, one of several media figures who plays themselves in fleeting appearances). Clooney and Helsov take a shrewder approach with the mano-a-mano confrontations between the various men (and two women) involved in the proceedings. (The words "never fuck the intern" belong on a T-shirt.)
From his first directorial effort, it's been clear that Clooney has a cinematic eye, which he employs in "Ides of March" primarily through a skillful use of close-ups and long stretches without dialogue. Gosling's face says a lot more than any single zinger. For much of the running time, Morris is more phantom than man, an idea representing opportunity for the scheming individuals swarming around him. However, Clooney eventually gets a chance to chew on his own scenery by facing off against Gosling in one of several transformative moments throughout this actors' showcase.
At its best, "Ides of March" succeeds as a leaner, more outwardly aggressive version of Mike Nichols' "Primary Colors," which skillfully explored the dichotomy between Bill Clinton's charm and his private abuse of power. "Ides of March" hints at a similar troublesome balance, but emphasizes the cutthroat nature of the men behind the curtain rather than the face they support. The title suggests a dramatic Shakespearean twist, but Clooney's aims are much simpler. As he builds to a western showdown divorced from political specificity, the Manchurian-like manipulation turns "Ides of March" into an allegorical monster movie in which everyone's competing for the role of the monster and most people can't see it.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony's decision to premiere "Ides" at Venice followed by its Toronto screenings should help give it a prestige status not unlike the actor-director received with "Good Night, and Good Luck." Mixed reviews may slow its momentum, but the A-list cast and solid screenplay should help carry it through awards season with promise.