***originally written 4 November 2011***
Poor George Clooney. Having been gift-wrapped A-list status in the mid-to-late nineties, The Most Charming Man In Hollywood has made concerted efforts not to waste the opportunity. Constantly favouring smaller, quirkier projects rather than the typical superstar vehicles, he has become a respected presence for his dogged pursuit of the less-obvious path. He is perceived as one of the big bankable stars of our era, but if you think about it, how many huge movies has the man appeared in this last decade? Not many.
No, he’s far more interested in men who stare at goats, spending time in space with Steven Soderberg or recasting his public persona as a buffoon with the Coens than landing the roles that the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio or Tom Cruise are happily hoovering up. The same too can be said for his directing career. It’s no small feat to roll out 4 feature films in a decade, especially when you’re taking so many roles in other people’s work, and, like those roles, his films have been smaller, more curious creatures. They feel like personal films because they’re clearly focused on Clooney’s own interests and ideals. And like his bit-parts and cameos, because of their welter-weight status, they never really get the credit they deserve. At the 2006 Oscars – a meagre year at the ceremony – Clooney’s superb Good Night, And Good Luck ought to have walked away with Best Film and probably Best Director as well. Instead the man received a consolation Best Supporting Actor gong for getting tortured in Syriana.
And so to his fourth feature, The Ides Of March, a political thriller adapted from a play, in part by Clooney as well. As in Good Night, And Good Luck and Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, Clooney takes a significant supporting role in the film, but lets another actor take the main focus. In this instance it’s can-do-no-wrong rising star Ryan Gosling, who plays idealistic and seemingly-naïve Steve Meyer, press secretary to Clooney’s Governor Mike Morris on a campaign to become the Democratic nominee for President Of The United States.
Anyone who watched the later seasons of The West Wing, particularly season 6, will find the first half hour or so of The Ides Of March extremely familiar, with it’s talk of stump speeches, tactics, delegates and polling data. In fact the film begins with such a strikingly similar tone to that of the Santos campaign that it feels like some lost episode fed through from a parallel universe. It made me realise again what a good show it was. But The West Wing was also, even in its later years, an idealised depiction of American politics. Fairly quickly, The Ides Of March starts to plunge into the dirtier realms of campaign strategy that Sorkin’s spin doctors were too morally correct for.
Gosling’s Steve forms the focal point of almost every scene, as the movie charts the wearing away of his idealised view of the political vehicle he is aboard. His future self is visible in the jaded faces of veteran campaign managers Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, two seasoned actors at the top of their game who make supporting characters mighty and meaty. Hoffman in particular is given the movie’s most chewable speech. His baring carries what could otherwise have seemed an awkward and pompous moment. But this is Gosling’s show, and he is quietly impressive, though perhaps without the extra kick that made his performances in Lars And The Real Girl, Drive and Blue Valentine so memorable.
The Ides Of March ultimately breaks little ground. The story that plays out is played out well, and the ramifications of one simple sit-down meeting to a campaign is teased out deliciously. Less successful is a plot involving Evan Rachel Wood’s character Molly; an intern who it turns out is part of a potential scandal that lacks originality in the extreme. Clooney’s film is not an expose of anything we haven’t previously heard or seen before, rather it looks at the political process as established in the United States, with its candidates touring like rock stars, and asks whether the process is inherently corrupt. All the characters in the movie tarnish. To the point where you throw away your score card of who’s got any integrity remaining. To the point where, really, you wonder how Steve Meyer survived to the age of 30 without realising the nature of the business he’s in.
Nevertheless this is well-made filmmaking and another overall success for Clooney, who wears the hat of director with great credibility. He has his little flourishes from time to time (a standout scene is brilliantly concocted around a phone simply ringing – it’s impressive, though it draws attention to itself), flourishes that suggest a more operatic sensibility lurking beneath the surface. But for the most part this is assured, solid work which shows style without grandstanding. He has made the move from actor to director with his usual guile and charm. There is a simple maturity about his work when contrasted to, say, Ben Affleck’s overly-earnest Clint Eastwood-aping.
However The Ides Of March feels like another movie carrying the Clooney name that, whilst all well and good, will be tough to remember a year or two from now. All too soon after its DVD release one can imagine it sitting alongside other also-rans on the mark-down shelves in HMV (if HMV’s still there of course). A mid-budget serious film that nobody cares about anymore.
Which is a shame. This is a good movie, and I recommend it. Just don’t expect it to be in the running for best anything when the Oscars come back around. Poor George Clooney.