MOVIE REVIEW: The Ides of March

THE IDES OF MARCH-- 4 STARS

Leading man George Clooney has always fashioned himself a Hollywood throwback.  He oozes Cary Grant-level charisma and stardom matched with sharp and daring acting that has earned him five Academy Award nominations and one win.  Recently during an interview for Parade magazine, he called the 12-year stretch from 1964 to 1976 "the greatest era in filmmaking by far" and listed his 100 favorite films from that time span. Prominent on that list (one that's hard to argue with), Clooney calls 1976's All the President's Men a "perfect" film and part of his Top 5 with Network, Harold and Maude, Dr. Strangelove, and Carnal Knowledge.  From that list, you can see where George gets quite a few of his influences.

If you haven't heard or noticed, Clooney has been trying his hand at directing for the last nine years with four feature films to his credit: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Leatherheads (2008), and now The Ides of March which opened October 7th.  While he's got a long way to becoming the next Clint Eastwood or duplicating All the President's Men, George raises his game and comes through in creating an extremely interesting, tense, and well-acted political pot-boiler.

The Ides of March, with its title alluding to the fall of Caesar and Shakespeare, follows the work of straight-laced, fast-rising political strategist, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling).  Myers works as the Junior Campaign Manager under Senior Campaign Manager, Paul Zara (Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman).  They are the trusted point men for Governor Mike Morris's bid for the Democratic nomination for President.

Clooney himself plays Morris as the liberal and environmental optimist in comparison to his bible-beating opponent that he's slightly ahead of in Ohio primary polls with a week to go.  Leading the opponent's charge is Zara's rival campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti).  With Ohio's delegates and those of needed states after Ohio teetering in the balance, Duffy boldly arranges a secret meeting with Myers and goes so far as to ask him to switch sides and allegiances.  Even in refusal, Myers's confidence is shaken and word of the meeting starts to leak. Then, before you know it, he ends up in bed with a connected intern, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), whose name-tag might as well real "Trouble."  The sound you hear is the toilet beginning to swirl and that smell is the muck our naive true believer Stephen starts to find himself in.

The Ides of March, based on Beau Willimon's 2008 play Farragut North and adapted by Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov, is an acting showcase across the board.  The decorated cast all bring their A-game.  Gosling, who's having quite a year with this, Drive, and Crazy, Stupid, Love., carries the film even though Clooney is the big name and no slouch himself as the tacturn Presidential candidate.  After watching him do little more than cross his arms and pout in Moneyball, it's nice to see the best blustering linguist in the business, Philip Seymour Hoffman, at least start a good rant or two.  Paul Giamatti pours his snake oil well, as  does reporter-on-the-scene Marisa Tomei.

While the acting looks good on posters, sells tickets, and brings people in, the movie's every-evolving chess match of political dealings, secrets, twists, and double-crosses will keep you talking about it after you leave.  Well-paced in its building suspense, 

The Ides of March astutely sets you on a course of constantly waiting for the other shoe to fall and questioning whether that shoe will multiply into a thunderstorm of explosive Crocs and Uggs.  The movie's greatest strength also creates its single biggest flaw.  Unlike Clooney's perfect All the President's Men based on a real life scandal, you can only create so much fictional suspense and pose so many pseudo-relevant fictional questions until things come out as a little too unbelievable and unlikely, even for a movie.  Nevertheless, the movie and Clooney's directing dresses to impress.  Go ahead and see what all the fuss is about.

LESSON #1: POLITICS IS A DIRTY BUSINESS-- I can hear it now.  "Gee, thanks, school teacher movie critic. Got any other hard ones?"  Yeah, this one is pretty easy.  Do you think Hollywood will ever make a movie about clean politics?  Nah, I didn't think so either.

LESSON #2: DON'T S - - T WHERE YOU EAT-- You'll see...

LESSON #3: HOW DIGNITY AND INTEGRITY ARE MEASURED-- In working in that dirty field of politics, The Ides of March  lets us know that every idealistic person or intention is tested by competition, temptation, stress, and how low other people will go to beat you.  Do you fight fire with fire, get down and dirty, or take the high road?  When does cynicism and corruption creep in?  Those choices and tests either strengthen or chip away at a person's dignity and integrity.  You begin to wonder how much of each trait one has left in the political world, fictional and real.

LESSON #4: LOYALTY IS THE ONLY CURRENCY IN POLITICS, OR IS IT?-- Philip Seymour Hoffman's character claims that loyalty is the only currency in politics.  It damn well should be, but is it?  No matter how fictional The Ides of March is, we've seen political positions and elections in real life (right, fellow Illinoisans?) that can be bought and sold with good press, bad press, scandal, arm-twisting deals, and good old-fashioned money as much as they are supposed to be with loyalty.