Thursday, January 19, 2012

Movie Review: The Ides of March

The Ides of March
(R)
Directed by George Clooney
Running Time: 101 minutes
Originally Released: October 7, 2011

* * * (out of four)

Not everyone holds to the same ideals. As reflective human beings, we are sometimes forced to ask ourselves what price we are willing to pay if we are to keep our most cherished personal convictions intact. Less often do we consider what value such convictions hold for us in a world that treats them as mere commodities that can be bought and sold. The Ides of March examines both sides of this issue, imparting to viewers a cinematic cost-benefit analysis of personal integrity.

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is a young press secretary working the primary presidential campaign of Democrat and current Pennsylvania governor Mike Morris (George Clooney). Stephen is ambitious, hard-working, and carries an impressive résumé for his age. But Stephen does more than play the game—he believes in his team, and he is driven first and foremost by his commitment to the ideals touted by Morris. If he didn’t believe in Morris, Stephen wouldn’t allow himself to be among Morris’ most fervent advocates. Harmoniously enough, Morris himself is a staunch idealist, so much so that his idealism has become one of his most controversial attributes.

Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is Morris’ campaign manager. Across the way is Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), campaign manager for Senator Pullman, a Democrat from Arkansas. As the film takes place entirely within the scope of primary elections, Pullman is Morris’ main rival, making Tom and Paul archenemies. And then there is Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), an intern serving on Morris’ campaign whose fling with Stephen sets off a string of tumultuous events.

With an impeccable cast, it may be all too easy to deem The Ides of March a “powerhouse” film. But 90% of the film’s success can be attributed to Gosling. I’ve long been an unabashed admirer of Gosling’s work, and yet I continue to be amazed by his talent. With The Ides of March, Gosling reaffirms the power of facial expressions. Think of the way a pupil dilates to accommodate a shift in the light; with an equally effortless ease, Gosling conveys a precise and sudden change in his character’s emotions. Though the change is natural, fluid, and almost imperceptible to the casual observer, it speaks volumes as to what’s going on within the character’s psyche. Hate, disenchantment, anxious fury—with the gentle lift of a brow or the nearly indiscernible tensing of the mouth, Gosling deftly conveys all of these emotions, richly, in full force, and with all of the nuanced differences between them properly accounted for. It is highly impressive, especially when one recognizes just how similar these faces can appear.

The remaining cast is in top form, although lesser-developed characters sometimes hurt the film. A recurring theme in the film is deceit and betrayal. When a mask falls from this or that character and true motives or natures are revealed, it is hard to feel as shocked as one might had the decimated façade been more firmly established.

Incredibly well-acted and directed, The Ides of March is far from perfect. It’s a slow process, bringing the film to a simmer. Viewers spend nearly two thirds of the film convinced they’re watching a fairly straightforward, modestly entertaining election movie. Then, after nearly an hour of screen time and seemingly out of left field, things start to get interesting. Very interesting. The problem is that the movie then spends its remaining time steadily building to a rolling boil—only to come to an abrupt stop. In the end, it feels like a very extended trailer for a movie I still wish I could see. Put another way, the movie does a lot of gearing up without really paying off. The slow start only accentuates the jarring swiftness with which the film concludes, which may have been a deliberate and stylistic choice on the part of the filmmakers. Even so, I can’t help thinking that the movie stands in dire need of a cinematic haircut—taking just a little off the top would give it a much tidier appearance overall.

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