It’s starting to seem like Ryan Gosling can do no wrong.
His Oscar-nominated turn as a drug addicted junior high school teacher in 2006’s Half-Nelson proved he had chops, and he’s been showing them off ever since--in films such as last year’s Blue Valentine and the recently-released Drive. Now, he’s showing them off in George Clooney’s political thriller The Ides of March and it seems implausible that the academy won’t honor him again next year.
Headlining an impressive cast, Gosling stars as Stephen Meyers, a smart-as-a-whip press secretary for the presidential campaign of Governor Mike Morris (Clooney). Stephen is brilliant and highly accomplished for someone his age, and Gosling plays him with the same sad-eyed intensity he employed so expertly in Drive. But what makes Stephen appealing is a certain understated selflessness: even though he’s a hotshot and a darling, his drive--we’re told--comes from his genuine faith in Morris as the last great hope for the United States of America. Uninterested in personal gain, he wants Morris to win because he thinks this will help people. His idealism does not last.
Political campaigns--as we are shown--are a rotten business, and the tiniest crack in a man’s veneer will prove to be his undoing. Stephen’s is revealed early in the film when he makes the unfortunate mistake of meeting with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the manager of a rival campaign. Duffy wants him to jump ship and switch sides. Although Meyers rebuffs the offer, his decision to meet in the first place is dubious, and continually comes back to haunt him.
Some playful flirting with Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), a campaign intern, leads to several romps in Stephen’s Cincinnati hotel room, and exposes him to secret information that he never, ever wanted to know. As it turns out, his candidate--the man that he so desperately wants to see in the White House--is not as perfect as he seems.
The film is gripping as Clooney delves deeper into political intrigue. No one is a saint, except perhaps Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and you can guess how things turn out for him. Even those not involved explicitly with the campaign are treacherous shysters, including Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), whose endorsement can make all the difference but comes at a steep price, and Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), a wheeling-and-dealing New York Times reporter who would gladly stab you in the back for a headline.
The performances are exceptional, and it’s a real treat to see so many big names come together in a single film. As a director, Clooney lovingly affords his actors both patience and faith, allowing the subtleties of their facial expressions and body language to convey the kinds of meaning that dialogue cannot. As an actor, his presence seems diluted, but this works because his character functions mostly as a figurehead, and we do not get to know him particularly intimately anyhow.
It’s difficult to judge how outwardly political The Ides of March really is. Morris’s campaign is certainly intended as a pastiche of Obama’s – particularly in terms of iconography. And no doubt, Morris comes off as precisely the sort of candidate that many Democrats had (incorrectly) assumed Obama would turn out to be. But this is not really a film about Democrats or Republicans--i.e. there isn’t much of an “us vs. them” mentality on display here.
Good people become villains when their actions run counter to their principles, but sometimes you can’t tell that you’ve compromised until it’s already happened. And then you either renounce yourself, or push on, believing wherever possible that your errant actions were intentional, and that you did nothing wrong. Governor Morris is a villain. And so is Stephen. They are driven, hard-working men who make mistakes that they cannot afford to own up to. And so their guilt and self-loathing makes them even more determined, and they drive themselves harder. On and on it perpetuates, and the film would have us believe that this is the most frightening thing about our politicians and leaders: that the best and brightest might well carry within them the darkest of secrets. Ides is ultimately a cynical film, positing that the democratic process is susceptible to the same evils and ills as men. I was reminded of Churchill when he observed, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried."
As with Gosling’s Stephen, there is no choice but to press ahead.