Saturday, October 15, 2011

Reel To Reel: The Ides Of March

True primary colors.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti
Rated: R
Red Flags: Strong language, one sex scene

The Ides Of March is a 100-minute game of political chicken or no-limit Washington hold-em centered around a presidential candidate who talks a great game of integrity while his staffers realize there are only two requirements for political office: knowing how to win and knowing how to add. Playing dirty is not frowned upon but expected.

Stephen Myers (Gosling) is a smart young press secretary for Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney, who also directs) who plays the system like Tiger Woods at the top of his game. He has a reporter in his pocket, great strategies for his boss and all the right things to say. But he needs 200 delegates to seal the Democratic nomination, something which will require the endorsement of Ohio's governor, and as you might expect, that endorsement won't come out of mere good will. That job falls to Morris' campaign manager Paul Zara (Hoffman), the prototypical chain-smoking political sage who you know belongs in some backroom somewhere making deals.

Myers thinks he's hot stuff, but not any hotter than he can handle until he secretly meets with Tom Duffy (Giamatti), campaign manager for the governor's opponent. Duffy indicates Morris' lead in the polls is soft and tips him off to the strategy that threatens to disintegrate that lead. However, Myers is also getting person with a campaign intern (Evan Rachel Wood). After the sex scandals of Bill Clinton and John Edwards, you would think Democratic campaign workers would know better. However, it's not Myers' fling that's the big problem, nor is it his fraternizing with the enemy. It's something much bigger, yet all too familiar.

The film's title draws from the famous warning to Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's iconic play of politics, power, and people with knives waiting to stab somebody in the back. Likewise, Ides' tension comes from characters who are armed with damaging information like hand grenades on their belts, and we're constantly watching to see who lobs the next bomb and who gets hurt while Gov. Morris models himself into the perfect candidate, and Clooney sounds absolutely presidential in those compulsory-element speech-making scenes. I'm wondering what's going to take this guy down. However, when I read Julius Caesar in high school, I considered it to be Brutus' tragedy, the story of noble motivations gone wrong. Et tu, Stephen? Yet all of this psycho-political brinksmanship takes place out of the public eye, even outside the 24-hour cable news cycle.

I saw this movie with my Royal Father and Queen Mother, who had a beef with a critical plot twist. She felt it more appropriate of a 1970's tensioner like Absence Of Malice. Your Majesty, I respectfully disagree. Part of the nature of a suspense film is that its characters aren't completely on the level, even if we think we know what they should do. If I had any problem with this film, it was that it ended abruptly as it was just beginning to take off. Maybe that's because I was so drawn into its moves and counter-moves that I wanted to see Election Night and not just the primary.

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