by Joe Shea
October 8, 2011
CLOONEY'S 'IDES OF MARCH' IS BRILLIANT, COMPLEX AND HYPNOTIC
BRADENTON, Fla., Oct. 8, 2011 -- Having just left the theater less than an hour ago, I remain transfixed by the power and complexity of George Clooney's self-directed "The Ides of March," a film that tells the story of the betrayal and deatth of innocence as few other films can.
Clooney plays liberal Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris, who is in a dead heat with another governor in a critical Democratic primary in Ohio. We're assured the Republicans are hopeless and that the winner in Ohio will be the party's nominee and next President. Victory and loss for both candidates relies on the endorsement of Ohio's extremely conservative black governor.
Mike Morris is running on themes of integrity and competence that seem to resonate with voters, and his campaign is run by a veteran that reminds me of Bob Shrum, Sen. John Kerry's masterful campaign manager in his 2004 race for the White House. This campaign is taking place in 2008, just at the cusp of the cell phone revolution, which in 2012 would have overtaken this film's plot.
Campaign manager Paul Zara (in a fine performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a gruff, honest man of deep loyalties, while Gosling's character, Stephen Meyers, the Morris campaign's "media mind," is that of an up-and-coming political operative who dreams of the White House but whose values have not yet been tested in the crucible.
Near the end of a campaign, Stephen allows himself to be seduced by a young intern, Molly Stearns (newcomer Evan Rachel Wood is perfect), who is just 20 years old. It seems like an innocent-enough fling, and at this point Stephen may be "innocent" - and certainly is in terms of his upcoming traducement.
These are not original themes, but they are treated in a novel way: Stephen, the youngest in this triangle, is not the ambitious macher you'd expect but a man who is forced by his circumstances to become ambitious or lose everything he's worked for. His ambition seems invisible even to himself, and that is not the Hollywood nor the Shakespearean model.
"This is my life," Stephen tells Paul when he is about to lose his job, and only that statement demonstrates why he does what he does to not only keep his place in the campaign but improve it. The other choice, as Tom Duffy (perfectly played by Paul Giamatti, who seems neither Irish nor Italian) puts it, is running "a restaurant in Costa Rica."
Stephen's life begins to unravel when he is wooed by the vital, tough Tom Duffy. Duffy's call, followed by a meeting that Stephen belatedly decides not to report to Paul (as he originally intended to do), is the beginning of a series of lies that threaten to unravel the entire campaign. In fact, if this story has origins in Shakespeare ("Beware the ides of March," a soothsayer warns Julius Caesar, emperor of Rome), a more apropos title would have been "The Wicked Web."
We meet Molly Stearns when she brings a confidential folder to Stephen's office and seems to pump him for information about it. That stirs no suspicions in Stephen, which points to his na´vete if nothing else, but she quickly turns the conversation into a thinly-veiled seduction. Stephen cooperates and meets her in a bar; he is soon in bed with her. We're left thinking she may be a Duffy spy, but we learn she has other, more innocent motives.
As Stephen would have known, but didn't, Molly turns out to be the daughter of the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Jack Stearns. That is not a card she plays, surprisingly, but merely a role she has. The lovers promise each other the next morning that their liaison will stay between them, and off she goes.
But during their second assignation, a cell phone call at 2:30am shakes all this to the core. It's from Gov. Morris, and portends all that we saw unfold in the Clinton era.
Not much later, Stephen comes clean with Paul and tells him about the meeting with Duffy, who had told him the governor of Ohio (an ecellent Jeffrey Wright) has accepted the other guy's offer to make him Secretary of State if he delivers his game-winning 356 Ohio delegates.
Moreover, Duffy tells of a strategy that has enlisted Rush Limbaugh and other right-wingers to suddenly launch an all-out appeal on their radio shows and blogs to the state's conservatives, telling them to vote for Duffy's guy in Ohio's "open" primary (in which people can vote for candidates of either party). Duffy's man is far more beatable in the general election, the GOP believes. So it looks likes curtains for Morris, and Paul is furious he hadn't found out earlier. All he values in this world, he says, is loyalty.
Marisa Tomei, playing the fictional Ida Horowicz of the New York Times, is the pressure point for some of the coming revelations, and their ultimate source will surprise you. As always, she is wonderful. Clooney's direction is simply flawless.
Those plot developments, which are extraordinary, deserve being kept secret, and suffice to say, they never, ever disappoint. You have to wonder about some of the bad choices Stephen, Molly and Morris make, but only if you are not human. As in Shakespeare's work, it is by our humanity that we are undone.
This film, for its presentation of motives and choices, and the inevitable betrayal of innocence, is a winner. Be sure to see it if you like your politics unvarnished.
A bit of disclosure: I didn't know until I saw the credits that this film was produced by Grant Heslov, whose mother, Jerry Heslov, was a good friend when I edited the Beverly Hills GOLDBOOK in the early 1990's. Heslov and Clooney are old and very close friends who'd met a few years before I met his mom.