Solid all around, if a little bit stuffy, George Clooney’s latest directorial effort announces its retro intentions from the outset, with big block-letter credits and old-school drum-roll score, punctuated by a lonely trumpet. Hollywood’s throwback artist is at it again, as The Ides Of March finds Clooney in super-serious, Alan J. Pakula mode, harkening back to that fabled time in the ’70s when talky, adult political pictures were the rule, instead of the exception.
Adapted by Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon from Willimon’s Off-Broadway play, Farragut North, the film stars Ryan Gosling as a suave Washington, D.C., up-and-comer, working on a hotly contested primary campaign for Clooney’s too-good-to-be-true front-runner. Rife with inside-the-beltway banter and the fascinating behind the scenes details of a high-stakes, complex operation, the first half of Ides hands over some deliciously meaty chucks of barbed dialogue to its to-die-for cast of character actors.
Philip Seymour Hoffman brings the gruff as Clooney’s surly campaign manager, struggling to wrangle crucial delegates via an endorsement from Jeffrey Wright’s withdrawn rival. Since this is Washington, there are a few off-the-books favors expected in return for such kindness, but Clooney’s white knight remains stubbornly averse to backroom deals. (He’s also an agnostic, so the fact that he could even get this far running for office I think qualifies the film as science fiction.)
As the opposition’s chief weasel, Paul Giamatti spends the movie shrouded in almost complete darkness, periodically popping his head out of the shadows to make a meal out of his monologues. Marisa Tomei comes and goes as the kind of reporter you really wish you could trust, if you didn’t know better. Gosling’s audience surrogate is an idealistic pragmatist, but he’s also got an eye for the interns.
The Ides Of March works best when it sticks with the day-to-day grind of a life in politics. Stump speeches, poll numbers, TV spots and the right way to spin a story. It only gets into trouble when the melodrama kicks in. Turns out that Evan Rachel Wood’s intern has a few secrets of her own, and maybe Clooney’s candidate isn’t as squeaky clean as we’d all like to believe. Before long, everybody’s scamming somebody and those early cronyism deals seem like small potatoes. Cinematographer Pheodon Papamichel does a mean Gordon Willis impression, bathing the performers in ever-encroaching shadows.
Clooney’s directing style matches his action, lean and no-nonsense. He keeps the same measured tones even during the movie’s more lurid second half. Much like Good Night And Good Luck, it’s a sleek, strikingly well-acted adult entertainment that in the end feels a little bit smaller than it probably should.