TROUBLE CITY

The Ides of March

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If you'll indulge me, gentle readers, I'd like to talk about politics. Dissatisfaction in politics and skepticism of authority are nothing new. They're as old as the concept of government itself. As such, there's no way this could possibly be the first time that political disgust has been so overt or so popular. However -- because generations past never had 24-hour news networks, ubiquitous cameras, or the global village that is the Internet -- it certainly does feel that way.

For my part, I was thirteen years old when the state of Florida and the U.S. Supreme Court made a mockery of the 2000 presidential election. Aside from a few hazy mentions of the Monica Lewinsky scandal (people were always vague about that around an 11-year-old, for some reason), that's as far back as my memory of politics goes. And from first to last, it's been flooded with fearmongering, propaganda, and misinformation. I had to form my own political opinions while growing up in a media-saturated age, with everyone and his dog repeating the latest conspiracy theory and/or talking point for all the world to hear, ad nauseum. More to the point, the media saturation has made it easier for politicians to get caught in their own lies and hypocrisies, only to shamelessly use their speech writers and their dedicated voters to sweep the whole thing under the rug. For the most part, mendacious deceit and self-serving half-truths have become accepted as SOP. In fact, boldfaced lying and defamation of character have become mandatory in any political campaign (to this day, there are still people who think there's a Kenyan in the Oval Office right now).

There have been a few exceptions to prove the rule, of course. My personal favorite was 9/11, in which all of America united in solidarity, right before Bush used his newly-gained popularity to go avenging the tragedy in all the most misguided ways. Then came 2008, when Barack Obama won the White House in a landslide by campaigning on a platform of optimism. There were plenty of naysayers, to be sure, but Obama generally did a fine job of convincing the nation that change was coming because we as a country had outgrown petty political differences. Three years later, it's obvious that Obama promised a future that never came to pass. This realization led to disappointment which has been manifesting in some curious ways over the past few years.

On the right side of the spectrum, this resulted in the Tea Party movement. On the left side of the spectrum, this resulted in the Occupy Wall Street movement that started just a few days ago. The former (ostensibly) stands for limited government regulations, less government spending, and fewer taxes. The latter recently began squatting on the financial capitol of America (and in several other cities nationwide), in protest of corrupt economic policy and excessive corporate influence in government.

Personally, I think that both movements have more in common than either would like to admit.

They're both completely devoid of any leadership or accountability. They don't have any clearly-stated principles or suggestions of how to implement them. They have no ideals, no plan, and no agenda. The platforms of both groups are comprised entirely of blind rage over their impotence in this so-called democracy. After spending the past decade vehemently disagreeing about everything under the sun, conservatives and liberals finally show agreement on something through these movements: This system is broken.

I guess what I've been trying to say with the past six paragraphs is that The Ides of March could not have come out at a more perfect time.

Here is a movie founded on the notion that our means of electing officials has gotten way out of hand. To sum it up as best I can, the movie posits that our political system is run by a bunch of fallible human beings who screw each other over to keep up the illusion that they're messiahs. For politicians and staff members alike, one public mistake means a career ruined beyond all repair. A system in which information is the most valuable currency, where even the most loyal, idealistic, and skilled participant can easily be cast aside.

And for what?

At only ten minutes in, the movie explicitly states that this is all much ado about nothing. If a candidate doesn't win, the world will keep on turning and life will still go on. All of this money, all of this manpower, and all of this pressure beyond what any mortal soul should be able to endure, all without any regard to the fact that there is life outside and after politics.

But the real kicker is this: Unlike most other political movies, this isn't about a Republican candidate and a Democratic candidate. No, this movie is about two Democratic presidential candidates on the eve of the Ohio primary. These two politicians and their respective staff members are tearing each other to pieces, and they're in the same damn party! If that's not representative of these times we live in, I don't know what is. Oh, and before you cry foul: This movie could have been about two Republican candidates and it would barely have changed a thing.

Aside from that, I really don't feel I should have to elaborate on the plot. Political dramas about the backstage machinations of elections are nothing new, and this film predictably hits every single beat that you would expect it to. So let's meet our cast instead.

First and foremost is Ryan Gosling, who's been having an amazing year lately. He plays Stephen Myers, an idealistic staffer who spends the movie devolving into just another heartless bastard in politics. He's a wunderkind who's worked on several political campaigns, with his current one being that of Governor Mike Morris. The latter is played by George Clooney (also the director and co-writer), who's got absolutely nothing to prove here. We already know that he's a handsome and charming guy, and he's played several villainous roles in the past. In other words, he's absolutely perfect to play a man who's saintlike in public and devious in private.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman appears as Stephen's boss, playing the character with a fine mix of intelligence, bluster, and a messed-up kind of morality. His counterpart on the opposing campaign is played with Paul Giamatti's unique brand of shiftiness and sleaze. Meanwhile, Marisa Tomei does a fine job as a charming reporter who isn't afraid to make or break friendships for the sake of a story.

Then there's Jeffrey Wright, playing the corrupt Senator Thompson. The movie spends a lot of time establishing Thompson as the linchpin of the entire presidential race. The logic goes that they can't win any other primaries without Ohio, and they can't win Ohio without Thompson's endorsement. Unfortunately, as Morris tells us, this guy is a political nutjob who thinks that the top ten floors of the UN Tower should be wiped out. And in return for an endorsement, Thompson wants to be Secretary of State.

Naturally, this raises a lot of implicit questions about the reliability and integrity of our electoral system. After all, how fair can an election be when it all hinges on the decision of a single man? And furthermore, how did this one man come to that much power in the first place?

Last but not least is Evan Rachel Wood, playing an intern for the Morris camp. First of all, the camera absolutely loves Wood in this film. She's playing a character who's completely aware of the fact that she's a stone-cold fox, and this confidence somehow makes her all the sexier. And of course, that helps make the character so much more tragic when her self-image comes undone. In the interest of preserving what few surprises this movie has, I won't say any more.

The quality of the screenplay is so inconsistent that it's maddening. It starts out great at first, with some very witty dialogue exchanges and some solid characterization. Yet as the movie continued, the dialogue lost its luster, the plot started getting more predictable and several character arcs just abruptly ended without a sufficient pay-off. Don't get me wrong, the cast is uniformly excellent and they all get at least one scene to really shine, but there are some actors who got one scene and nothing more. Jennifer Ehle, for example, was cast as Clooney's wife, and all of her dialogue is concentrated into one scene. After that, all she has to do is stand around and look pretty from time to time.

But the far greater problem in this movie is that of its tone. The movie tries so hard to establish itself as a serious and moody drama, which is something it really wasn't equipped to be. I'll show you what I mean: When this movie opens, Stephen steps up to a podium and delivers some totally empty talking points. He's saying them as a joke, just spouting gibberish for the sake of a sound check. But then, in the next scene, Morris is at the podium for a primary debate, repeating Stephen's words line for line.

That's the sort of humor that the film uses in its first half. The satire is razor-sharp, but it's presented in a relatively light manner. This is when the movie really fires on all cylinders and delivers some very clever commentary on the state of politics today. But after a point, the message starts to become much more heavy-handed, the actors play their parts with more melodrama, and the cinematography starts throwing shadows all over the place.

What's more, the cinematography also starts utilizing such ham-fisted and cliched shots as "close-up on a character's face through a rain-covered windshield." There are other times when visual cliches are used in such a way that the filmmakers clearly didn't know how they were supposed to be used. My favorite example is when two characters meet to talk inside a car, and the camera holds on the car's exterior throughout the entire conversation. We don't see anything happen and we don't hear them talking, we just watch the car and listen to the score. This can often be a very effective trick in building suspense, since we don't know what's happening, what the result will be, or when the result will come. In this case, however, we know exactly what the meeting is about and the end result is precisely what we expected. So... what was the point of that?

To be clear, The Ides of March doesn't outright fail in its back half, but the shift in tone does feel very weird. Even so, I can still recommend this film as a wonderfully accurate picture of American politics at this exact moment in time. The performances are wonderful across the board, the dialogue is whip-smart, and there are several keen moments of satire.

This is a good film that's definitely worth a look, but there are several other, better Oscar-bait pictures that are still playing in theaters. Drive, Moneyball, and 50/50 are all underperforming at the box office, and I'd urge you to spend your time and money on any of those before seeing this one.