[Screen It]


(2011) (Ryan Gosling, George Clooney) (R)

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Drama: An idealistic strategist must contend with dirty politics and related shenanigans while trying to help his Democratic presidential candidate win a pivotal primary state.
Stephen Myers (RYAN GOSLING) is an idealistic strategist working for sitting Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (GEORGE CLOONEY) who's running for president. With the Democratic Ohio primary against Senator Pullman (MICHAEL MANTELL) coming up, Stephen and his fellow associates, including staffer Ben Harpen (MAX MINGHELLA) and intern Molly Stearns (EVAN RACHEL WOOD), do their best to execute the game plan of campaign manager Paul Zara (PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN).

But they have a formidable foe in Pullman's campaign manager, Tom Duffy (PAUL GIAMATTI), who's likewise after Senator Thompson (JEFFREY WRIGHT) and the hundreds of delegates he can deliver to whichever candidate will ensure him a cabinet position in exchange for his support. With opportunistic newspaper reporter Ida Horowicz (MARISA TOMEI) doing her best to get a scoop from either side, Stephen plays the standard campaign game with her, feeding her info in hopes of some positive coverage in exchange.

While he thinks he's as idealistic as he believes Morris to be, Stephen isn't above a little covert hanky-panky with Molly, whose father just so happens to be the head of the DNC. Yet those very ideals are challenged when Stephen realizes he's being played by various people with their own agendas. From that point forward, he has to figure out whether he must stoop to their levels in order to stay in the political game.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
As a way of starting off this review for the political drama "The Ides of March," I thought I'd find a great quote about politics to use as a summary of both the film's themes and the overall larger field of real life politics. The problem wasn't finding one or even an appropriate one. Instead, it was that there are far too many and most of them hit the nail on the head, either as satire or the plain truth. While it's not necessarily the best of the bunch, I picked one from someone who knew a thing or two about the comparative elements he references:

"Politics are almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times." Winston Churchill

Yes, politics are all about defeating (and thus "killing") an opponent's chances of winning primaries, elections or what have you, but the one thing politics in general is sure to kill is one's idealism. Sure, there's the American mythology of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," but that was a bygone era, and had there been a sequel (or two or three), we would have seen the idealistic freshmen Senator eventually end up corrupted in one way or another, as power, opportunity and deal-making are prone to do to nearly any politician on nearly any level.

That's the gist of "Ides" (named after the old Shakespearean warning about fearing March 15th, but actually based on Beau Willimon's play "Farragut North"). In this adaptation of that stage work by screenwriters Willimon, Grant Heslov and writer/director George Clooney, the film examines the behind the scenes maneuvering, chess strategy and games of chicken that go on at the highest level of politics in the U.S. -- the bid to become the next President.

Considering Clooney's obvious political leanings, it's no surprise that Republican policies and tactics get bashed in the flick (at one point a character says the Democrats need to stoop down to the same dirty playing level as their opponents if they want to compete).

Yet, the director doesn't go easy on his side either, dishing up dirt on the wrangling and deals that take place backstage and even the immorality of the main candidate (played by Clooney in a strong supporting performance, and -- one would assume -- something of a swipe at a certain past Democratic president and/or another candidate with similar aspirations who ended up derailed by his own actions).

While there's nothing really new covered here -- something similar was addressed decades ago in "The Candidate" -- just about everything regarding the film works. First off, Clooney has assembled a terrific cast, with hot star Ryan Gosling as the idealistic political strategist and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti as rival campaign managers.

There's also Evan Rachel Wood as a young intern who serves as a pivotal catalyst; Marisa Tomei as a reporter who will do most anything for a scoop; and Jeffrey Wright playing a Senator who will give his political favors to the candidate who best courts and offers him the best cabinet post. Everyone is spot on with their performances.

The script is also quite good. While it lacks the spark and sparkle of what Aaron Sorkin (who penned the best of what "The West Wing" had to offer) might have brought to the table, it's still far above average. And it actually feels a bit like "Wing" in showing what goes on behind the scenes as the big power player (Clooney here, Martin Sheen in the old TV drama) is only present as a supporting character.

Some have complained about what they deemed a melodramatic development later in the film that feels out of place. I had no such reaction, mainly because it's - sadly - becoming quite common among politicians and it pushes the protagonist into dark corners he'd rather not find himself in.

The fact that it isn't novel or a particularly upbeat or positive look at politics might turn off some viewers. For me, the latter is what makes it an important film, while the efforts of all of those involved makes it an artistic success. One should not beware "The Ides of March" as the film rates a strong 7 out of 10.

Reviewed September 26, 2011 / Posted October 7, 2011

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