|Ryan Gosling, The Ides of March, Columbia Pictures, 2011.|
The title of actor-director George Clooney's new political drama The Ides of March is appropriately culled from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, the ultimate classic of bureaucratic intrigue and status-mad betrayal. What we have here is a fascinating if uneven skewing of the stateside status quo, hoisted up by cleverly rhythmic dialogue and a dream team ensemble cast.
A pragmatic portrait of well oiled political machinery, Clooney takes inspiration from the powerhouse government melodramas he adores from the 1960s, namely Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe and especially John Frankenheimer's The Best Man, to play on his beloved liberal themes. Laid bare in all of their skulduggery, the chicanery of a decisive Democratic primary race towards the presidency sets a pace the director relishes. Overall an actor's dream, bristling with brilliant performances, the film gets just about everything right, while still coming out feeling underwhelmed.
Innumerable elements contribute to its strengths. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael imbues the ordinary with a honey light, while composer Alexandre Desplat's score supports the spirit in a methodically fanciful fashion. Ryan Gosling locates his character's evasive focal point once again, surfacing just the right ambiguity to make him enigmatic yet touchable. Ace character actors Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti spark a simmer at the picture's outset, as Evan Rachel Wood balances fragility, precociousness and ambivalence. Clooney himself renders palpable the vast complexities of a public figure in a refreshing way.
Even though nothing here is wholly original, it is woven together well. The human drama which cuts into the civic process sucks us in slowly, penetrating our minds in pinpoints. Clooney is one of our great old-fashion movie stars who also happens to be a hell of an actor. Through his several intelligent, precise films as director, he has shown a startling proficiency for stylishly old school movies. His debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), was a wild, woolly romp based on one of genius scribe Charlie Kaufman's weaker screenplays. His sophomore effort was the much lauded, intellectually stimulating, gorgeously shot historical film Goodnight and Good Luck (2005). His third feature proved to be his best so far, including this new film. The misunderstood screwball sports comedy Leatherheads (2008) took its inspiration from masters Capra and Preston Sturges, and was effortlessly entertaining.
Within these sprockets, Clooney has found the dramatic pulse of American politics. His fascination with the order of things is incredible. Style and substance are mastered by Clooney, who has never worked more freely than in a few key sequences; Gosling at a crucial turning point, his breakdown seen through a rainy windshield distorting his face phantasmagorically; and especially the rigorously shadowed meeting between Clooney and Gosling, their faces half drowned in darkness as they haggle over the direction of their imperial fates.