Tuesday, October 4, 2011

"Not that I loved Caesar less, but I loved Rome more."

There are two key moments in George Clooney's latest as a director that I think many either will not notice or will ignore in favor of a quick dismissal of a film they believe to be attempting to pull back the curtain on political corruption as naiveté and old hat. It's in these two moments that Clooney plays his hand, almost too subtly, and reveals what the film is really about. It's not attempting to be revelatory about anything. Rather, it uses the harsh truths about politics as a springboard to explore more a interesting subject matter: corrosion. It is also, for my money, one of the most refined pieces of filmmaking this year.

On its surface, Clooney's film uses corruption as a framework for the narrative. We all know that politics are dirty business. Or at least, we used to be ignorant of it, until the last 20 or so years. Based on the play Farragut North, which was loosely inspired by the brief presidential campaign of Howard Dean, the film follows a second in command campaign manager (Gosling) for an idealistic presidential candidate (Clooney) in the last days of the democratic primaries. Through a chain of events, he becomes more and more entrenched in the dirty dealings of politics as the election is on the line.

But again, this is merely the narrative framing device. What Clooney is really interested in exploring here is not corruption, but rather, corrosion. He presents us with a character study of how the harsh realities of politics don't match up with good intentioned idealism, and how it eats away at us, turning those who were once passionate, loyal, and optimistic into bitter, cynical people. Like I said, there are two key moments towards the end that really reveal this, but I don't want to spoil anything here. But the way the film handles this idea was particularly fascinating to me, and again, I'm afraid many will miss it and instead assume the film is trying to treat corruption as something new. Rather, that sense of being beaten down by the harsh realities of corruption, and essentially having your optimism beaten out of you, is a complex, fascinating theme that really struck a chord with me. When do we throw our hands up and admit we can't do it the clean way? When do we accept that one person may not be able to change the world, because we can't get everyone to simply agree on things that seem like common logic, but are contended on principle, rather than it just being the right thing to do? It's a complicated issue, and Clooney handles it with grace and nuance by channeling these external and internal conflicts within his lead character.

In more technical terms, every actor here is firing on all cylinders. Gosling (who gave my favorite performance of the year so far in Drive) embodies a young idealistic man turned cynical by the overwhelming pressure around him perfectly, showing how just beaten down he feels at all the right moments.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is doing his usual thing here, and that shouldn't be taken at all as a criticism. The actor is so consummately great at what he does that it's easy to take him for granted. But his final scene with Gosling is what really sold me on the effortlessness he injects in every great turn. He's one of the greats, no question about it. Clooney himself really makes the absolute best of every scene he's in, bringing in shades of his performance in Michael Clayton (my favorite of his to this day) and something else, something entirely new. There's a fire in his eyes, and nothing will put it out. Evan Rachel Wood is a pure spitfire here, and Marisa Tomei left me wanting more and more of her craven vampire of a journalist.

 I sincerely hope The Ides of March isn't quickly dismissed as old hat naiveté, but if it is, I'm happy to be in the minority here. For my money, this is one of the absolute best films of the year. While not topping Clooney's masterpiece, Good Night and Good Luck, the film is tight, crisp as cold winter air, and immaculately executed.


Sammy V said...

I'm glad to see someone praising 'The Ides of March'. I'm headed to see it tonight, and was getting a little depressed w/ the mediocre reviews. From your post, 'The Ides of March' sounds like something I'll enjoy.

Kevin K. said...

Thanks! I really enjoyed it a lot, even if it is a very old school, classically made film. Yes, a lot of the stuff in it is surface level, but I think that's by design. It's a type of film few make anymore.

Scott Mendelson said...

If I may, the idea that "the harsh realities of politics don't match up with good intentioned idealism" isn't exactly a breathtakingly original idea either. One of my main issues with the film is that Gosling's operative never seemed all that idealistic or naive (he merely hoped against hope that Governor Morris was better than the usual ilk). We are constantly told that he is both somewhat of an innocent and an ace political operative, but we see little evidence of either character trait. It may not be fair, but so much of what Ides of March tries to say was already said, in a more adult and less sensationalistic fashion in Mike Nichol's Primary Colors back in 1998.

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