George Clooney as Governor Mike Morris
Ryan Gosling as Stephen Myers
Evan Rachel Wood as Molly Stearns
Marisa Tomei as Ida Horowicz
Paul Giamatti as Tom Duffy
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Paul Zara
Jeffrey Wright as Senator Thompson
Max Minghella as Ben Harpen
Lauren Mae Shafer as Morris’ Make-up Lady
Danny Mooney as Campaign Editor
Talia Akiva as Beth Morris
Wendy Aaron as Morris Campaign Staffer
Hayley Madison as Intern Jill
Tiffani Elise Edwards as Pullman Staffer
Yuriy Sardarov as Mike
Directed by George Clooney
Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) is just days away from the Ohio Democratic Primary in his bid for President of the United States, but there are problems in his camp as his press spokesman Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) has uncovered a secret the governor has been keeping from an intern working on the campaign (Evan Rachel Wood), something that the opposing candidate’s campaign manager (Paul Giamatti) would use against them without a second thought.
While there may be something relatively timely about a film set during a presidential race, there’s also something about George Clooney’s fourth movie as a director that makes it feel somewhat dated. Maybe it’s because the original source material, Beau Willimon’s play “Farragut North,” came out in 2008, right in the middle of the Obama-McCain battle, and this year’s election has barely started. Regardless of where you sit in that debate, it’s a terrific adaptation by Clooney and his frequent collaborator Grant Heslov, turning what’s presumably a very dialogue-heavy play into something that transitions into somewhat of a ’60s thriller set amidst the world of dirty politics.
The background is the Democratic primary in Ohio, the combatants are Governor Mike Morris and his conservative opponent, but it’s Morris’ staff who takes center stage as we see what is happening behind the scenes as his support staff fend off those who hope to bring Morris down. Most important to Morris is getting the endorsement of North Carolina Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), which would give him an advantage in Ohio, but that’s easier said than done. Stephen gets distracted by a pretty young intern named Molly who has caught his eye, played by Evan Rachel Wood. When she makes a rather forward advance on him, they end up in bed and in a secret relationship just as Stephen is approached by the opponent’s campaign manager (Paul Giamatti) looking to steal him away from Morris. This last bit causes problems with Stephen’s boss, Morris campaign manager (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who sees it as a complete betrayal, but by that point, Stephen has bigger problems as he’s getting it from all sides.
At first, the thought of watching the inner workings of a political campaign might not seem that interesting, especially since we’ve seen it before, whether it’s in “Primary Colors” or “Bob Roberts” or any number of political docs. What makes “Ides of March” worthwhile is that midway through, there’s a fairly big turning point that takes things in a direction where it’s far less obvious how things will play out.
Like with two of his previous three films as director, Clooney takes a back seat as an actor to allow another actor to shine, in this case Ryan Gosling, who opens the film at a podium giving a rather wry version of a speech we’ll hear Morris give a few minutes later, then offers a commanding presence every time he’s on screen (which is most of the movie) even when he share scenes with Clooney. Seeing Gosling play a character that’s almost the polar opposite to the one he plays in Nicolas Refn’s “Drive”–he actually talks in this one–proves that all the earlier accolades given to Gosling were warranted. If Gosling doesn’t receive an Oscar nomination for either this movie or that one, then the Academy is truly f*cked.
The same is true of Evan Rachel Wood, another actress we’ve seen on screen from a young age, who ends up receiving one of the film’s juiciest roles, one where she can be sexy, but also vulnerable and emotional. In some ways, Molly’s arc is just as well-defined as Stephen’s. That’s not to say Clooney is barely in his own movie, because he is terrific every time he’s on screen; his scenes with Gosling offer some of the biggest impact, especially in the second half once things start to unravel.
Having Giamatti and Hoffman as the two opposing campaign managers is genius casting, because the roles fit them like a glove. If Clooney’s exploration of dirty politics was meant to mirror any aspect of the real world, then one can safely presume that Giamatti is meant to be the Karl Rove of the mix, and while he and Hoffman fall comfortably into the range of seriocomic roles they’ve played before, they both have big scenes that really showcase their talent. Most people seeing this will probably wish there was more of Marisa Tomei as the investigative journalist who uses her friendship with Morris’ campaign managers to get information that could potentially hurt Morris’ campaign and Stephen’s career. It’s another scene-stealing role for her, while Wright is equally good as the religious senator from North Carolina who holds so much power in the campaign.
Having such a solid cast makes it pretty hard for “Ides of March” not to deliver on the performances. Clooney gets full credit for that as a director, though one can also see how much of the cast are stepping up their game to keep up with Gosling. What might be more surprising is how unbelievably good the whole movie looks. For a movie that is essentially two people in a room having a conversation almost from beginning to end, Clooney’s DP Phedon Papamichael shoots it in a way that frames the characters in each scene to perfection and both the lighting and camerawork do a lot to keep eyes glued to the characters.
The Bottom Line:
We probably would have a lot more to say about some of the central topics explored in the movie if we didn’t want to spoil some of the plot turns, but it’s an effective look at contemporary politics and how it’s become more about smearing your foe than proving your own worth. While it may start out slow and seem redundant, there’s no denying the brilliant cast Clooney has assembled are delivering some of their finest work in telling this story.