Monday, October 10, 2011


As a rule, men worry more about what they can't see than about what they can.

If you must break the law, do it to seize power: in all other cases observe it.

No one is so brave that he is not disturbed by something unexpected.

Men in general are quick to believe that which they wish to be true.

Fortune, which has a great deal of power in other matters but especially in war, can bring about great changes in a situation through very slight forces.

   - All above quotes courtesy of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

The best of Shakespeare's plays dealt in some form or another with political machinations and intrigue. MacBeth, Titus Andronicus, Richard III, and of course, the above referenced Julius Caesar. However, the power of those works stem not from the politics themselves, but the effects of political intrigue have on the participants. Like the play from which the film's title is cribbed, "The Ides of March" shows the how the quest for power in the political arena can shatter perceptions and compromise integrity.

This film is not the first cinematic foray that proves Lord Acton's axiom of absolute power's ability to corrupt. However, it is one of those rare films where the plot is actually the MacGuffin. Instead, this is a character piece; one that plays with and subverts the audience's perceptions and expectations.

The film stars Ryan Gosling as Stephen Myers, a cocky young assistant campaign manager for democratic presidential hopeful, Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney, who pulls double duty as both co-star and film director) under senior campaign manager Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).  Myers seems to know all the angles and is smooth with the interns; in particular one Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood). All seems to go well for him until he receives a fateful phone call from the campaign manager of Morris' rival for the democratic nod (Tom Duffy, played with smarmy bluster by Paul Giamatti). What follows from that phone call leads to a domino effect that leaves none of the characters unscathed.

Gosling is the star, but Clooney's directoral vision dominates this movie which is infused with themes and motifs: How even the simplest of choices, whether made or abdicated, can alter the course of an entire enterprise. Of how hubris causes both rise and fall and how reality of perception is mutuably transient. Like Hitchcock before him, of which the tone and pacing of this films owes a great deal, Clooney's direction paints a moving picture of mood and symbolism, deliberate yet portentous in its pacing, yet somehow lackadaisical in its methodology. The major beats in the story do not hit like a brick to the head, but sneaks like an adder until the revelation strikes; but even when its strikes, it's akin to a sail boat ride with a light wind.  The film does not spoon feed its revelations, working mostly by implication to get its point across.  Thus it is more of a thinking person's film than the general public would expect. Even the score by Alexander Desplat mirrors its tonality, enhancing the action but in muted fashion, not musically telegraphing the revelations ahead of time. This film's strongest asset is its ambiguity; not just in and of itself, but in its characters' actions and ultimately their motivations.  There are no easy answers and no one is what they seem. Visual symbolism is used to great effect here, such as the use of windows to show reflections of people, but as opposed to mirrors, the reflections are insubstantial, almost ghostly, as if to remind the viewer that what they are seeing may not be there. This is in direct contrast with the art deco-styled posters of Governor Morris, which despite showing solidity of imagery is in fact a tailored manipulation to elicit a response to garner votes. And the characters evince this same mutability so that by film's end the audience's perception of them is markedly different than shown at its beginning. The film is evocative of film noir with its heavy and calculated use of lighting and shadow to engender mood and portent, and in some cases to enhance the leitmotif of insubstantiability of character both figuratively and literally. 

The film would not work without the talents of the ensemble cast. Clooney deserves kudos for not only directing and acting in this film, but by also manipulating his on-screen charisma to his character's advantage, playing Morris as an ersatz Clinton-esqe, man of the people candidate and (SPOILER: YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED) when it comes time for the facade to drop, Clooney reveals the powerful actor that lies beneath the Clooney mystique. Some may balk at the political rhetoric espoused by Morris throughout the film (a valid consideration given Clooney's liberal leanings), but Clooney wisely interjects it with the main action so that the speeches, like the political battle of the story, take a back seat to the human conflicts unfolding in this tableau. Ryan Gosling, to his credit, gives his own chameleon-like performance, going toe to toe with some of Hollywood's heavyweights, including Clooney and character actors Hoffman, Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright as a senator whose support both democratic nominees need, and Marisa Tomei as a jaded, headline hungry political reporter. Perhaps the only true human connection one can find is with Woods' character Molly, a late teen/early twenties' intern who has the brains to play with the political big boys but soon finds herself in way over her head.

This film does not come with any easy answers, leaving the viewer to fill in the blanks and draw their own conclusions. This may hurt the film in a culture which requires every plot to have a neat ending with the sides of good and evil clearly drawn. But this is not a film about good and evil, nor is it a political intrigue actioner with dead bodies abounding (SPOILER: There is one consequential death, and it still leaves the lingering question of whether the fatality figuratively jumped or was pushed). It is a film about truths and perceptions, ideals and their subversion, humanity and its nature. It is a film where anyone may be Caesar or any of the conspirators. It leaves you wanting more, but in a good way.

Thus, to paraphrase Gov. Morris' debate speech at the beginning of this film, "If you're expecting action with this drama, don't see this film." "If you're expecting to have every shred of information handed to you, don't see this film." However, if you are looking for a taut, suspenseful, norish, character-study thriller with remarkable performances, then definitelhy see this film. "The Ides of March" is definitely a date to be kept...just keep all sharp implements at the door.

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