Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Day 56: The Ides of March

"I don't believe in extortion. I don't believe in tying myself to you for the next eight years."
"Four years, let's not get ahead of ourselves."

My number seven film of 2011 is based on the play Farragut North, which was penned by Beau Willimon, a former campaign worker for Howard Dean during his 2004 Presidential bid, making The Ides of March is one of the more savvy political films that's been made in the last few years. George Clooney is a movie star of the highest order, he harkens back to the era of actors like Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and John Wayne who played variations on the same role their entire careers. As a director however, Clooney has shown where his true versatility lies. He's only made four films, but they have been diverse, interesting and, with the exception of Leatherheads, pretty fantastic. He believes, as I do, that the 1970s was the best decade for film and filmmakers in the history of cinema, and his films all beat with the same heart that films of the 70s beat.

The Ides of March tells the story of a fictional Ohio Democratic primary that hinges on the endorsement of a powerful Senator (Jeffrey Wright) whose endorsement will swing the contest to one of the two candidates left standing. The film's focus centers on the one candidate, Mike Morris (Clooney) and his campaign managers Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling). Paul is the hardened, cynical veteran, Stephen, the young idealist. It's established from the very beginning that Stephen is a true believer in Morris. He believes that Morris is the man who can take the country in a new direction. It's more than a job for him, and this sets him apart from Paul and Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the man running the campaign of Morris' opponent. On a side note, I can't believe this is the first on-screen pairing of Hoffman and Giamatti. I'd love to see another film where they can really go toe-to-toe, somebody write that movie. I've even got a great title, you could call it "Schlubs."

Stephen begins an affair with an intern on the campaign, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood, who at 24 years old is wearing entirely too much makeup in the film, but is otherwise very good). While this is going on, Stephen is approached by Duffy to come and join the other campaign, because Duffy knows that with Ohio being an open primary state, Republicans and Independents can vote as well, and they will turn out in force to ensure that his candidate gets the nomination, if for no other reason than they think that he's beatable in a national election.

There is a revelation that happens around the forty minute mark that turns Stephen's opinions on Morris around, and I won't reveal it here as I didn't know it going in, and I think it may hinder your enjoyment of the film. It's not far outside the realm of believability, and it wouldn't hinder your enjoyment of the further twists and turns that follow, but the less known about it, the better. The story of the film then becomes Stephen's journey from an idealist to a cynic, and while it's not new ground the film is treading, it's done in such a way that it makes it feel new and revelatory.

Top to bottom, front to back, this is the best ensemble cast of the year, and probably of the last few years. These are all Actors, with a capital A, and they relish the witty and crackling dialogue that the script, written by Clooney, Willimon and Grant Heslov, gives them to bounce off of one another. Everyone gets a big scene, and they all, Hoffman in particular, make the most of them. Marisa Tomei is also great in a small role as a reporter playing all sides to get a scoop, and even Jennifer Ehle, as Morris' wife, has a really nice little scene with Clooney that shines a spotlight on the plight of being a candidate's spouse.

The film is incredibly well directed. As good as Clooney is in his role in the film, he is becoming a better director every time he steps behind the camera. His first effort with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was outstanding, one of my favorite movies, but it had a lot of flourishes that a first time director can get consumed with, like his long shots that spanned time and space. With Good Night, and Good Luck, he scaled back considerably with those stylistic touches, and told a great story in a tense, spare way.

Here, he's taken his cue from the paranoia thrillers of the 70s (Pakula's All the President's Men, Coppola's The Conversation & Yates' The Friends of Eddie Coyle leap immediately to mind), and the film belongs right alongside those as a great example of less is more. It's incredibly well-made, and his cinematographer Phedon Papamichael lights the film amazingly, and gives you instant visual clues as to the tone of a given scene. My favorite scene has no dialogue at all, and is when Paul leaves a barber shop and is called into an SUV by Morris for a chat. It's done with just a slow push-in on the shot, and it tells you everything you need to know about what's going on in the SUV without having to show a frame of dialogue being spoken.

Ryan Gosling is slowly becoming one of my favorite actors. His turn in this film, along with my number two film Drive, and his performance in last year's Blue Valentine are all the work of a very intense and dedicated actor, and I look forward to whatever he does next. Here, he works alongside some actors that he's probably taken a few cues from in his career, and he leads the ensemble ably and excellently. He's no longer an actor to watch, he commands your attention with just his presence, and that's a pretty hard thing to do.

I'll be back tomorrow with my number six film of 2011, Bennett Miller's Moneyball with Oscar nominees Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill.

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