Audiences are no strangers to political films these days. While they usually have more of a thriller angle and focus on government figures already in power, there have been a decent number that follow candidates on the campaign trail and as such, any new film tackling old ground needs to make a conscious effort to distinguish itself in some way, to stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately, The Ides of March makes no such effort and seems content to languish in probable obscurity.
The film is a character study following Ryan Gosling’s Stephen Meyers, a whip-smart but naive young campaign staffer during his time working for Governor Mike Morris. Morris, played by George Clooney who also co-wrote the screenplay and directed the film, is a presidential hopeful, and the film takes place during his campaign to win the Democratic party nomination. Meyers is essentially the number two man on the campaign at only 30 years old working directly under campaign manager and political mainstay Paul Zara, played with zeal by the incredible Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Their competition is technically a Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell), though the opposition is almost entirely represented by Paul Giamatti, who plays Pullman’s campaign manager, Tom Duffy. Duffy and Zara are old school, both having come up around the same time, with Duffy seeming to have been in Zara’s shadow to a certain degree. Duffy and Zara are hardened political guys, but Meyers is still idealistic, believing in a man who can truly bring change to the country. He’s put all his trust and faith in Morris, a man he truly believes can make a difference. But when that trust is destroyed in the blink of an eye, Meyers finds himself scrambling to make sense of his quickly crumbling world.
The best thing about the film is easily the one-two punch of Giamatti and Hoffman. They seem to be the only actors who actually showed up ready to act. It almost feels like stating an obvious fact by saying that they were terrific here. By now, we pretty much expect them to be great in any role they take. But perhaps it’s all the more impressive that they’re so consistently good. It’s rare to see either of them have an off movie. The Ides of March sees them both at the top of their game, and they both get one scene in particular to remind you why they’re Oscar caliber actors. Giamatti’s scene explaining the underhanded world of political campaigns to Gosling is pitch-perfect but it’s overshadowed by Seymour Hoffman’s speech on loyalty. He delivers said speech with a veracity and tenacity that immediately lends the film some much needed weight. That scene seems to suck all of the air out of the room and each of Seymour Hoffman’s lines come crashing out of the void, pounding his point home like a hammer to a nail. Sadly, great though their acting is, it’s simply not enough to elevate the film from the mire of mediocrity.
The single biggest problem is that the story is setup in such a way that the film basically rests entirely on Gosling’s shoulders, and he fails to carry it. Whether it’s mostly Gosling’s acting or Clooney’s direction to blame is anyone’s guess, but the bottom line is that Gosling’s performance is uneven and oddly detached. He never has the big blow ups that you would expect given the circumstances. He internalizes all of his rage but doesn’t communicate effectively through body language and facial expression. As such, the audience is left to fill in what we think Stephen Meyers should be feeling but it just doesn’t come off as genuine. How could it? It’s not up there on the screen for us to see.
While there are definitely occasions where leaving things up to the audience’s imagination is viable and even preferable to spelling things out, character’s emotions are not one of them. We need to know exactly how Gosling is feeling but all we get is him staring at people, tears seeming to well up in his eyes as things happen to him. We never really see him reacting to these things, fighting the problems, trying to change things. Instead, his character is passive and submissive, allowing the film’s events to steamroll him. It is this distinct lack of emotion and perceived lack of passion or desire to change things that makes his inevitable transformation into cynical, slimy asshole all the more unbelievable. It’s hard to buy that he’s succumbed to the dark side, betraying all of his values and becoming the political figure he always hated because he never seems to fight against. It just happens to him as if it was somehow supposed to, as if he’s accepted his destiny to become a bad guy.
Ultimately, The Ides of March bites off more than Gosling can chew. It seems content to flounder about, trying to make points that are so obvious, most grade schoolers could make them. Politically campaigns are corrupt? Politicians trade morals for votes? Scandal! The sad thing is that there’s a halfway interesting story being told, but the film doesn’t seem capable of doing it justice. There are bits and pieces to like, but in this case the film is no better than the sum of its parts.
The Upside: Evan Rachel Wood is gorgeous and the performances from Seymour Hoffman and Giamatti are fantastic…
The Downside: …the aforementioned performances belong in a better movie. Gosling is tepid, and the ending packs absolutely no punch. The title drawing any sort of comparison to Shakespeare is laughable.
On the Side: The film is based on a play called “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon. Farragut North is a Metro stop in Washington, DC, and the play itself is loosely based on the 2004 Democratic primary campaign of Howard Dean.