Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Et tu, Gosling?

The first question that probably comes to mind after Ides of March: Is there anything Ryan Gosling CAN'T do? In three major roles this year, he's been a comedic supporting player, a stoic action hero, and now a politically-charged anti-hero negotiating the shadowy labyrinth of election politics. Not only has he shown his diversity, he's batting a thousand, showing an intensity to character development and subtlety unlike anyone in his generation.

The second question might be, what does George Clooney actually accomplish with this film? Stepping back into the director/co-producer/co-writer/supporting actor chair that he used so well in his other politically-minded (but more historically-directed) film, Good Night, and Good Luck, he's now trying to feel more immediate, more acidic, and more politically relevant with a jab at the cynicism of the political landscape. And while The Ides of March certainly has moments of cold devastation and frosty bleakness, it's hardly the whopping indictment of the system its creators seem to envision it as.

Clooney plays Mike Morris, a Democratic candidate in the waning days of the primary elections. Focusing on the Ohio primary that, in the narrative, will ultimately decide who gains the Dem's presidential candidate, there are less speeches and grandstanding than there are volleyed conversations amongst campaign strategists. Enter Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ryan Gosling, the veteran and the upstart, and Morris's brain trust. Hoffman, behind a mop of greying hair and glasses, certainly looks the part of a political strategist, and his line delivery turns the whole thing into a numbers game as if it were nothing.

On the other side, there's Paul Giamatti as the opposition's chief political strategist. Conniving and smarmy as only Giamatti can be, his few scenes are some of the film's most electrifying, because he's clawing out of desperation to try and unseat Morris. Though Hoffman and Giamatti only exchange a few bits of dialogue early in the film, their conversations throughout about how to win elections are the film's most revealing -- they reveal the stakes not in terms of political ideals, but in terms of raw factors like cost, risk v. reward, demographic breakdowns, and margins of error within poll numbers.

The point, if you haven't caught on, is that elections are less about convincing people you're the right person for the job and more about conning them into voting for you through specific strategies. Though Clooney plays an idealist, someone who's determined to "make America number one," he's constantly butting heads with his crew and, wouldn't ya know it, by the time things are over even his shiny hands don't come off as totally clean. These broad thematic strokes -- politicians don't really care, it's all a game, the problem is the election system -- come in early and often, but after a while it all kind of loses its effect. It's a movie about people who lie, cheat, and steal their way to the top, but it all feels rather insular after a while -- as the stakes are raised, less seems to matter to people outside the campaign.

Yet, that doesn't mean Ides of March isn't absorbing. It's actually very tight, well-paced, and for those who love political thrillers, its dialogue-heavy script is certainly flashy even when it doesn't quite deliver on substance. Much of the film is focused through Gosling's Steven. The title of the film has Shakespearean implications, and by act three Steven readies himself to perform a political coup d'etat. There's plenty of double-crosses, manipulations, and even a bit of tragedy thrown into the mix that I dare not dispel. Some of it seems obvious, some of it comes as a surprise, and some of it feels manipulated into the larger storyline. Nevertheless, Steven's descent from wide-eyed believer into a selfish anti-hero is the crux of the film, and the film ends up surviving largely on Gosling's wings.

Part of the film's insularity comes from its stage origins. Based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, there's not a lot that feels "stage-y" about the presentation. Even if most of it is comprised of dialogue at bars, in hotel rooms, or behind the scenes at campaign rallies or at campaign headquarters, the constant changing of locations and the movement of the characters throughout Ohio certainly "opens it up." Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael uses lots of harsh, shadowy lighting to underscore the darkness that gradually overtakes the film, and uses plenty of close-ups and strategic blocking in doorways to highlight character subtleties and shifting relationships. This is aided by editor Stephen Mirrione, who gives every beat a sense of purpose and guidance to the overall shape largely by maintaining a strict continuity style.

There's little cinematic invention here, but that's nothing to lament. Clooney's direction is subdued; he puts his filmic devices to use under the action. He'd rather invest in how characters speak and behave to each other than stressing the visual components, which all seem to be working for the actors at any given moment.

There's a lot to like about The Ides of March -- mainly, that it's about our current political climate without talking down to us. That's also kind of its undoing -- it doesn't have a lot to add to the discussion. What it says, it says in an absorbing and economical fashion. There aren't a lot of big speeches (aside from Hoffman, who other characters poke about for his speech-making), and screenwriters Clooney, Willimon and Grant Heslov do a good job about keeping the most important elements between the lines and withholding major plot reveals for the right moment.

Sometimes, however, this restraint feels too pervasive. Sometimes it feels like Ides of March is comfortably floating through its political commentary without raising the stakes high enough. Sure, it discredits Morris as the ideal candidate (a resolution you should know will happen one way or another from just reading a plot description) and turns Steven into a tightened, jaded little bastard, but aside from strewing proverbial wreckage across the final act, and pointing out some of the glaring problems of our political landscape, there's not much to it.

Though its locked-in icyness may be part of the design, its this very icy insulation that keeps its sense of hopelessness about the whole system from turning it into a truly disturbing and nerve-wracking thriller.

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