It’s Worth Buying into “Ides of March”


The Ides of March Poster

“The Ides of March” (2011) requires an expensive buy-in.  By that I mean, the film asks the audience to accept several rather implausible scenarios.  The upshot is that the film is worth the price, because the pay-off is very satisfying.

The story centers on the Democratic presidential campaign of Governor Mike Morris, Pennsylvania’s governor, in the race against Senator Pullman from Arkansas in a year, like this one, where the Republicans are putting up a sure-loser.  The race is in the home stretch and Morris has taken a lead over Pullman as they face off in the always-competitive Ohio, with North Carolina to follow later.  Stephen Meyers, played by Ryan Gosling, is a young, bright and ambitious assistant to campaign manager Paul Zara, played by Phillip Seymore Hoffman.  Meyers may be young, but he’s experienced.  What makes this campaign different is that for the first time, he believes in the candidate.  Meyers has become an idealist which, inevitably leads to disillusionment.  The trigger is Meyer’s inadvisable meeting with Tom Duffy, Pullman’s campaign manager, but other seemingly unrelated series of events involving a New York times reporter, a relationship with an intern and traditional back-room political wheeling and dealing quickly turns Meyer’s professional and personal life complicated.

The writers took significant liberties with political plausibility. Take, for example, the premise that although Morris has a large delegate lead over Pullman leading up to the Ohio primary, if he loses Ohio and North Carolina, the momentum shifts completely to Pullman and Morrison will lose the nomination.  The only way to avoid this path to defeat, we are told, is for Morris to secure the endorsement of Senator Thompson, whose two qualities are even more a stretch:  one, he is a black senator from the southern state of North Carolina and two, he has sufficient number of followers and supdelegates to secure a victory in North Carolina and the nomination, making the result in Ohio insignificant.  Thompson, realizing his influence, puts his endorsement up for an auction, offering his endorsement to the candidate who offers him the most important position in the administration.   Morris, the ideal candidate, refuses to play this political game.

Even a casual observer of politics like me can poke enough holes into this premise to make it sink like the Titanic, but solid acting by Hoffman and Gosling rescues the movie.  Hoffman effectively plays the campaign manager whose cynicism is the symptom of his long experience but who has not completely lost his belief in the process.  Gosling plays with confidence and bravado the ambitious assistant in his late twenties whose intelligence and political sense has brought fear to the opposing camp.   Each play their character convincingly, so when these men, who are running the campaign, say that Morris will lose the nomination without Ohio, North Carolina and Senator Thompson, we accept it despite its improbability.

George Clooney gets top billing for playing Morris, but he is not the highlight of the film.  I don’t think he was supposed to be because the film is about Meyers, whose portrayal by Gosling solidifies his position as one of today’s best young actors.  Clooney deserves credit for understanding his limited role even though he is a bona fide star, but his  real contribution was behind the camera.  In a film with so many storylines and several significant minor characters, the pacing was crucial–and Clooney nailed it.  He doesn’t get bogged down with one character or one story, but spends enough time with each so that when they come together at the end, there is deep satisfaction.  He also does the small things well, like in a scene where Morrison has a meeting with Zara in a van.  The camera simply shows the van as the discussion between the two take place, leaving it to us, who know what is going on, to actively imagine the specifics of the conversation.

Clooney’s job was helped by the screenplay, who not only succeeded with pulling off a difficult premise, but also made every character count.  Take, for example, the New York times reporter played by Marisa Tomei.  She only has limited screentime, but her role is crucial to driving the plot.  To have her appear at the end of the film nicely brought the film full-circle.  I also appreciated the brief private moment between Morris and his wife in a motorcade, which provided verification to Meyer’s belief in Morris but becomes far more complicated in light of what unfolds later.

The real gem of the film, though, is how, after setting up the general premise, the writers run with it in all sorts of directions yet they all come nicely together at the end.  The denouement doesn’t distinguish itself in originality, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t satisfying.  This is a film where the writers, actors and directors all share commendation for successfully pulling off an ambitious movie (not necessarily in scale, but in premise).

This is ultimately a movie for political junkies.  I watched this film in Japan, where most of the people won’t understand why an old video of Morris at a small get-together advocating dialogue with terrorists is a political liability or the significance of female intern’s Catholicism in the context of American politics.  The appreciation for the film may be less for people who don’t understand the subtle political points, but the upside for them is that the general premise won’t seem as implausible as it did to me.  Either way, the film is a fun ride, even if it ultimately caters to the common cynicism of politics.

“Ides of March” has concluded its run in Japan and the United States, where it is available on DVD.


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