Friday, October 7, 2011

The Ides of March: Predictable political maneuvering

The Ides of March (2011) • View trailer for The Ides of March
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity
By Derrick Bang

Despite some powerhouse acting and well-sculpted characters, The Ides of March ultimately delivers a message that hardly comes as a surprise: Politicians will lie, cheat and betray with impunity. Angel-eyed claims to the contrary, they’d toss their grandmothers under a bus in exchange for a few points in the polls.
Press spokesman Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling, center) feeds some sample
questions to Democratic presidential primary candidate Mike Morris (George
Clooney, far left), while members of the campaign staff watch. Such rehearsals
are essential, since Morris must be able to deflect any question posed by the
public or members of the press ... and Myers must anticipate such questions.

No ... really?

The story — adapted by Beau Willimon, George Clooney and Grant Heslov from Willimon’s play, Farragut North — concerns one man’s loss of idealism, but even that isn’t news. Unchecked passion has been dangerous for centuries, because — particularly in the political animal — it inevitably allows one to believe that the end always justifies the means, no matter how ultimately misguided the latter.

The Ides of March is Clooney’s third time in the director’s chair, and it’s easy to see why he was drawn to Willimon’s play; Clooney never has been shy about his political activism. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the fact that he has chosen a narrative that speaks less to the homespun optimism of, say, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and more to the dirty-tricks cynicism running throughout All the President’s Men.

Ultimately, though, the significant plot points here — and particularly the resolution — aren’t nearly as captivating as Good Night and Good Luck, which Clooney also directed and co-scripted with Heslov. That film painted a far more intriguing picture of Edward R. Murrow and the tempestuous early days of television news: a time when it did seem possible for integrity and virtue to triumph.

No more, alas.

Ryan Gosling, enjoying a phenomenal year, stars as Stephen Myers, press spokesman to Democratic presidential primary candidate Mike Morris (Clooney, granting himself this deliberately — and misleadingly — superficial supporting role). Myers has the gifts of gab, finesse and sincerity; he works the media like a veteran conductor extracting the best from each member of an orchestra.

Myers has the added benefit, this time, of believing in his cause. He regards Morris as the real deal; as New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) notes, with more than a little surprise, Myers has “drunk the Kool-Aid.”

The story is set during the tempestuous week leading up to the Ohio primary, where Morris — coasting with a comfortable lead in delegates — is campaigning against underdog Sen. Pullman (Michael Mantell). The latter is a relatively clumsy Democratic candidate, since he insists on playing the Christianity card; Morris, thanks to his own good instincts and scripted answers fine-tuned by Myers and campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has little trouble deflecting his opponent’s religiously loaded questions.

But Morris’ lead isn’t nearly as secure as it appears. Ohio is far from a lock; perhaps more crucially, both candidates are forced to contend with the reactionary Sen. Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), who dangles pledged delegates that could put either man over the top. Morris loathes Thompson and his views, and insists that taking Ohio will end the game anyway (true).

But Zara isn’t that sanguine, and his uncertainty rubs off on Myers.

Evan Rachel Wood co-stars as Molly, an aggressive young intern who makes no secret of her seductive interest in Myers. The latter, while similarly aroused, worries that the recent Beltway mantra regarding interns makes them equally off-limits to campaign staff.

As the story begins, Morris and his staff are fairly secure about their position in the polls and the public eye, Zara’s guarded pessimism notwithstanding. But as events continue, everything slowly goes to hell.

Clooney’s directorial approach strongly evokes this material’s stage origins, although he shifts settings often enough to minimize the script’s emphasis on talking heads. Not that we actually mind, because the entire cast — led, most particularly, by Gosling — is sensational. The story and its resolution may be underwhelming, but the characters and their interactions are mesmerizing.

Gosling is riveting. The film opens as Myers tests the stage elements — podiums, microphone volume, etc. — for an impending debate between Morris and Pullman. Gosling owns this deceptively simple prologue, immediately transforming it from what must have been an oft-rehearsed scene, into the naturalistic behavior of an actual campaign press spokesman.

Gosling always submerges himself into his roles; the actor ceases to exist, and we’re left solely with the character.

His scenes with Hoffman crackle with intensity. Myers and Zara are both alpha dogs: Although they’re current allies, they don’t quite trust each other, perhaps realizing that — if Morris achieves the White House — only one of them will emerge as a highly visible accessory.

And there’s a clear difference between the two. For all his skill and poise, Myer’s whole-hearted devotion to Morris makes him somewhat naïve; Zara, having been around the block a few more times, has a more ruthlessly realistic streak. When Hoffman leans back, regarding somebody through slitted eyes somewhat obscured by cigarette smoke, he’s obviously calculating intent and weighing scenarios as each word emerges in a given conversation. Woe to those who suddenly fall short.

Paul Giamatti is equally dynamic as Tom Duffy, manager of the rival Pullman campaign. Zara and Duffy exchange a glance backstage, as Morris and Pullman conclude their debate; the two campaign managers obviously respect each other, but resist close contact in the manner of a hiker avoiding a snake. This scene is played for a quick laugh, but it also establishes the high-stakes nature of their conflict.

Later, in the third act, Giamatti pulls out all the stops during a scene with Gosling: the sort of eyebrow-raising, force-of-nature moment that could earn Giamatti an Academy Award nomination. I was reminded of Ned Beatty’s similarly crackling boardroom scene in 1976’s Network; Giamatti’s work, during this scene, is that powerful.

Wood, alas, is a weak link. Although an excellent actress, she’s simply miscast as Molly. Wood’s quite persuasive come-hither behavior notwithstanding, the script eventually insists that we accept Molly as immature, vulnerable and dangerously unfamiliar with the ways of the world, and particularly the political world.

Sorry, but Wood and “innocence” are mutually exclusive; it simply isn’t in her playbook. She’s so seductively ferocious that we immediately suspect duplicity and manipulation, given the stakes and increasingly charged atmosphere. But while it’s true that Molly conceals a secret, it’s not one we expect ... and it’s also not one that Wood can pull off.

Tomei slides effortlessly into her role of feisty seeker of truth; she’s wholly credible as an aggressive journalist. Wright radiates tantalizingly unspecified menace as Thompson, and Max Minghella (The Social Network) has some nice scenes as Ben Harpen, another of Morris’ young campaign aides.

Clooney is perfect as the glad-handing Morris: completely at ease with the verbal jousting of a campaign debate, and able to radiate (faux) sincerity with his broad, all-encompassing smile. Clooney also shares a few warm scenes with Jennifer Ehle, well cast as Morris’ devoted wife.

Unfortunately, all this powerhouse acting builds the expectation of a truly momentous and surprising conclusion ... but we get little more than business as usual. The film’s final 10 minutes are anticlimactic in the extreme, and not even Gosling’s alternately grim and haunted expressions — although they leap off the screen — can save the day.

I suspect this film will fare no better, in the marketplace, than Robert Redford’s politically charged Lions for Lambs, which sank into oblivion in 2007. That’s a shame. Even if the cynical message is predictable, we still need to hear it; something has to break the dysfunction in D.C.

No comments:

Post a Comment