Ryan Gosling is having a helluva great year. First he demonstrated his comedic depth and timing in Crazy, Stupid Love. Then in Drive he gave one of the quietest, subtlest, most understated, and yet most over-the-top-brutal performances since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.
Gosling is the man who made grown men cry in The Notebook. He's one of the finest actors in Hollywood. And he's thinking of retiring. At 30. Please, Ryan, say it ain't so!
But now he has stolen the spotlight from the master scene-stealer himself, George Clooney, in The Ides of March.
Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, a campaign staffer and media specialist for presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney). Stephen is a career campaign worker with the goal of becoming a campaign manager some day. But Morris is a candidate Stephen believes in. This time it goes beyond business. He really wants Morris to win.
As a libertarian, I had a hard time agreeing with the idealistic Stephen on this. During several scenes, Morris is heard campaigning in the background while political intrigue is developing in the foreground between Stephen and other characters. His slogans are intended to be taken seriously (director-producer-screenwriter Clooney is, of course, an outspoken Democrat), but they are laughably naive. Here’s a sampling:
"The rich complain that our tax policy is a redistribution of the wealth, but what they really want is distribution of the wealth to the richest Americans by our government." This is received with wild applause, as though our paternalistic government somehow creates all the wealth in the country and then doles it out to its favorite sons. (Sadly, this silly idea seems to be believed by many Americans.) In case we didn't get the point that the wealthy cause all our ills, he adds, "Greed and corruption ruin our industries and our shorelines." Shorelines? I’ll bet you weren’t expecting to see that at the climax of the sentence.
"The cause of terrorism is oil," he naively observes. "If we don't need oil, the terrorists will go away." This simple-minded foreign policy is quickly followed by Morris' economic strategy: "Within four years of my administration, no new cars will run on combustible engines, and we will lead the world again!" Now there's a plan to jumpstart this economy!
And this one: "Everyone should be able to afford college. Under my administration, all 18-year-olds will perform two years of mandatory national service, and when they return, their college tuition will be free." Stephen cynically tells Morris this is a win-win proposition because voters are over 18 and thus would not have to serve, while people under 18 can't vote. Doesn't he realize that people under 18 have parents who are over 18? Doesn't he realize that the "free tuition" would have to be funded by taxpaying voters? And doesn't he realize that "mandatory service" is not “free”?
In case we didn't get the point that the wealthy cause all our ills, he adds, "Greed and corruption ruin our industries and our shorelines."
The first half of the film focuses on the background machinations of the campaign trail, especially Stephen's interactions with Morris's campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the manager of Morris' chief opponent. These scenes are intended to create suspense leading toward the second act, but they are dialogue-heavy and rely too much on the audience’s understanding of the background politics. The film is adapted from a stage play, and often this leads to a screenplay that is too heavy in exposition. The scenes are smart and sassy and intended to be ironic, but irony only works when the audience knows the dual meaning of what is said and can anticipate the punchline or unintended result.
In this case, it doesn't quite work. The film's conflict pivots on a meeting, early in the train of events, between Stephen and Tom. The meeting is in a public place and lasts a few minutes. Ida (Marisa Tomei), a seasoned campaign reporter, gets wind of the meeting and threatens to print the story, as though it would create a major scandal. Sure, people working behind the scenes might be concerned about the purpose of such a meeting, but in light of the fact that no information is exchanged, would the public be alarmed? Would anyone care? Come on! There are any number of legitimate reasons for representatives of the two campaigns to meet. James Carville and Mary Matalin, darlings of the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, are married, for heaven's sake! This is no scandal, and it weakens the first half of the story, when suspense should be developing.
Nevertheless, if the viewer is able to suspend disbelief about that, the scandal that develops in the second half of the film, when the campaigning ends and the dirty tricks begin, is dynamite. It involves a beautiful young intern (Rachel Evan Wood) whose father (Gregory Itzin, the Nixon lookalike who played slimy President Logan in 24) is president of the DNC. Tension mounts, rising toward a showdown that more than makes up for the slowness of the first act. But now the focus is on personal relationships, not on politics.
Director Clooney wisely allows his fourth-billed actor to run away with this show. Giamatti, Clooney, and Hoffman may be the award-winning veterans, but Gosling is the ascending star. At one point his character is struggling with what to do about the clashing dilemmas. Instead of hamming it up with scenery-chewing angst, a la Giamatti (who plays his role with Machiavellian effect, I might add), Gosling turns inward. At one point we see him seated in a straight-backed chair, eyes staring forward, virtually interrogating himself. Suddenly his eyes glance to his right, as though he were reading his own mind. Nothing else moves, and nothing is said. So simple. So effective.
Clooney's own politics are well known in Hollywood and throughout the country. He uses his celebrity to spread political propaganda for the Democrats. So it may seem surprising to see him portray a Democratic candidate who is corruptible and opportunistic. But this cagey maneuver effectively defuses any sense that this is a propaganda project. It allows the film to transcend party politics and appeal to a broader audience. Unfortunately, however, Clooney adds a throwaway line early in the film that reveals his true feelings. Campaign manager Zara defends a campaign decision by saying, "We are simply doing what the Republicans have been doing successfully for years." In other words, the Republicans made him do it. Mike Morris may be a Democrat in philosophy, but his mistakes are entirely Republican. Bravo, Clooney!
The film's title, The Ides of March, suggests a conflict between loyalty and betrayal in high places, and in that respect, the film delivers. Clooney's own politics aside, it is not so much about political policy as it is about office politics. It is about friendship, revenge, and disillusionment.
My favorite line from the film is a character's justification for retaliation: "You didn't make a mistake. You made a choice." The Ides of March isn't a great film, but it's a good film with several great performances. I think it would be a mistake if your choice is to miss it. Moreover, Ryan Gosling recently announced on Conan O'Brien's show that he might not be making any more. And that choice would indeed be a mistake.