By Ray Bennett
TORONTO – The title “The Ides of March” gives away what George Clooney thinks about politics: it’s a place where people will stab you in the front. As director, star and one of the writers, Clooney delivers an engrossing drama set during a US presidential campaign but his real story is about one man’s disillusionment.
Corruption in politics no longer shocks anyone so it’s thanks to a clever script and an intelligent performance by Ryan Gosling as an idealistic campaign press secretary named Stephen Myers who has his integrity compromised that the film works so well.
Most of the young politicos I have encountered are as ferociously cunning as veteran party schemers but the determination of Myers to do the right thing is credible due to Gosling’s initial earnest charm and brash confidence.
As the venal and unforgiving nature of the older pros causes the wool to fall from the young man’s eyes, Gosling’s demeanour turns to a chill blankness that gives a fairly prosaic turn of events considerable force. The shrewd arc of the plot peels the onion of devious plotting on all sides.
Based on a play titled “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, the script by Clooney and Grant Heslov, and Willimon, establishes quickly the electric pace of the campaign for the Democratic candidacy of Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (Clooney).
Morris is almost too good to be true, a gleaming icon of liberalness whose position on all points matches Myers’ view of the way the world should be. Still, he’s in a tight race with right-win Senator Pulman and his campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has an equally wily and ruthless opponent in Pulman’s campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamati).
Clooney portrays Morris as many would imagine the star himself would be if he ever ran for office, except that the governor has a beautiful wife and children. He exudes integrity and authority, and as writer and director, the actor takes time for a small scene of endearing domesticity between husband and wife.
As we know from real events, political campaigns attract the brightest young men and women, and there’s always a nubile intern fresh from college. The usual pickup line usually involves asking simply which college football team the young woman supports, so that the sly question “Bearcat? Buckeye?” flatters not only her smarts but implies that she’s pretty enough to be a cheerleader.
Myers falls into that when blonde Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Ward) makes her availability clear and when after a romp in a hotel room he answers the phone and dismisses her presence as the cleaning lady, she texts for future encounters by asking if he’d like his room cleaned.
As the race for endorsement in Ohio becomes more intense, the opposing campaign managers wheel and deal with the votes of an influential Ohio senator (Jeffrey Wright) vital to the outcome. When Molly becomes pregnant, Myers discovers that he’s not the only politico to forget one of his cardinal rules: Don’t fuck the interns.
Hoffman and Giamati are as good as you would expect as the two pros, Ward makes Molly captures Molly’s beguiling mix of sophistication and deep naivety and Marisa Tomei makes a telling contribution as a slick and conniving reporter.
Clooney’s direction is assured and the film is both insightful and entertaining. He also does something rare in movies these days – he employs Alexandre Desplat’s adept score to carry a scene. More than once, Clooney brings back the camera and eschews dialogue in favour of Desplat’s piano or guitar cues, and it works so well because his script makes it perfectly clear what is taking place.
Production designer Sharon Seymour gives verisimilitude to everything from the campaign bus to television studios, temporary offices, back rooms and seedy hotel rooms and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael frames it all vividly.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival. US release Oct. 7 Columbia Pictures, UK release Oct. 28 eOne Films; Cast: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamati, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood. Director: George Clooney; Writers: George Clooney & Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon, based on the play ‘Farragut North’ by Beau Willimon; Producers: Grant Heslov, George Clooney, Brian Oliver; Director of photography: Phedon Papamichael; Production designer: Sharon Seymour; Music: Alexandre Desplat; Editor, Stephen Mirrione; Costume designer: Louise Frogley; Executive producers: Nigel Sinclair, Guy East, Stephen Pevner, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Killoran, Todd Thompson, Nina Wolarsky, Barbara A. Hall; Production: Columbia Pictures and Cross Creek Pictures Present in Association with Exclusive Media Group and Crystal City Entertainment, a Smokehouse and Appian Way Production. US rating: R; runs 98 mins.