Ryan Gosling is the up and coming young male star, who may very well turn out to be one of the best actors of his generation. In his most recent starring role, in Drive (see Bold Life review), he played a Hollywood stunt driver who takes bloody vengeance on some really nasty low-lifes. Gosling is also a “hit man” in his latest film, the politic thriller The Ides of March, directed by co-star George Clooney. This time, Gosling’s character doesn’t draw blood–exactly–he just kills careers, connives with corruption, and crushes his own soul. I’m not sure who is more frightening–the isolated loner who seeks revenge with his fists–or the once high-minded liberal who takes no prisoners on his way to the White House.
Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is the second in command for Democratic Governor Mike Morris’ (George Clooney) Ohio campaign for the Presidency. Stephen is one of those rare political workers–he’s a true believer, meaning he really does believe that Governor Morris, if elected to the Presidency, will lead the country to prosperity and action based on high principles. He believes, as the candidate claims to, that his “religion” is the U.S. Constitution.
The jaded reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) who tracks the campaign trail literally like a bloodhound says that Stephen is all “goosebumpy” about the candidate and he’s blind to the fact that Morris is human. Stephen doesn’t care if the reporter mocks him–he knows in his heart of hearts that Governor Morris is the right man to lead the country and Stephen will give every ounce of himself to see that Morris is elected. And he’s convinced he will do it the right and good way. Stephen and the Governor are openly disdainful of the dirty politics that the Republicans are noted for always playing.
The number one man on Morris’ campaign is a jaundiced manipulator, Paul Zara, played with terrifying world-weariness by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Zara may not think the sun rises and falls on Governor Morris like Stephen does, but Zara is ferociously loyal to the candidate. Zara believes that “loyalty is the only currency” in politics and he demands everyone else on the staff behave as he does. No one really defines loyalty with the low-level workers, however, including interns such as lovely young Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), nor keeps much track of whether they walk a fine line or not.
Meanwhile, over in the competitor’s circle, the head of the rival campaign is Tom Duffy, Paul Giamatti reeking with dirty politics. In a reptilian move, he invites Stephen to lunch—“just to talk”–in person–not on the phone. At first Stephen resists–it’s dangerous to be seen talking to the opposition. But Duffy keeps after him and finally Stephen agrees–just a quick meeting. But there’s no such thing in the kind of nasty politics of a presidential race where rival campaigners–“just talk.” Because he’s young and stupid and egotistical, Stephen thinks that when he turns down Duffy’s offer of a job–that’s the end of it. What the story shows and what Stephen learns is that he just started on the slippery slope. Lies will be told, promises broken, deals with the devil will be made and lives will be ruined, all at the altar of politics and Stephen will become the crafty acolyte.
“The Ides of March” refers of course to the death of Julius Caesar at the hands of his compatriots in Shakespeare’s play. An oblique title for this film, if there ever was one. And that’s a shame, because with a more catchy title, the film would be attracting a larger audience. I can only hope it will do well when it comes out on DVD because it is a worthy film–sparkling with great performances and solidly directed by Mr. Clooney. The script, based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, has the lean tautness and focused trajectory of its stage roots, which gives it a haunting cynicism like a Greek tragedy.
The movie is not for everyone. If you’re wide-eyed and innocent about politics, you won’t want to see this movie. If you think Democrats are more principled players than Republicans, you won’t like it either. No political party in this movie has a monopoly on virtue. Everyone has things they don’t want to see the light of day and everyone has to blink before they can look at their reflection in the mirror. What is killed in this cautionary tale, is not the man wearing the laurel leaf, but the delusions of those who gather around his pedestal.