It has been uncommonly hard to write yesterday’s and today’s columns as I am still hung up on Ink. We’re not even halfway through the year yet, but I know for a fact that movie will be in the top of the charts if I were to be crazy enough to rank all these. But anyway, Ink was Sunday and it’s time to move on. Here’s a sweet little indie heart-warmer for you…
A long way from Disney.
Stephen Meyers is the deputy campaign manager for Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris during the primaries for the Presidential election. Initially idealistic and considered “the greatest media mind in the DNC”, he turns to cynicism as he discovers the people around him aren’t as selfless as he first thought. Can he get his candidate to the White House and keep his soul intact?
I came to this film expecting great things. The combination of George Clooney both behind and in front of the camera, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Marisa Tomei backing up Ryan Gosling as Stephen, well blow me if that doesn’t have “prestige Oscar-bait” written all over it. And while it is a sharp, intelligent film full of restrained but powerful performances, there is something missing at its core: heart. Based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon – inspired by his time as a part of Howard Dean’s ill-fated 2004 Presidential run – the thesis posited here is that politics is rotten; populated solely by the self-serving, the manipulative and the deceitful.
Though it bears a superficial resemblance to Aaron Sorkin’s thrilling third season of The West Wing in its tale of strategy meetings and campaign buses, The Ides Of March instead goes to the dark side, foregoing any semblance of a likable character in service of its allegory. Never before has a four word tagline been more apt: Ambition Seduces. Power Corrupts. That is what this story is, in the proverbial nutshell. If I’m honest, it’s a thoroughly depressing film but that’s not to say it isn’t a thoroughly well-made one. Clooney started strong as a director and after only four films in the big chair he has claimed his territory as the heir apparent to Eastwood and Redford. Working again with his co-writer and producing partner Grant Heslov*, he has crafted a film that will grip you even as you strain to pick up every word spoken by this parade of some of the most respected actors working today.
Taking the lead among this cast must have been a daunting prospect for anyone but Baby Goose displays even more of the internalised intensity that he is fast becoming famous for. His expression doesn’t really change much at all, though he conveys everything he needs to with just his eyes. The former mouseketeer shows us Stephen’s moral decline as a good man becoming overcome by his own hubris and latent pettiness. It’s a restrained performance but one that holds the centre of the film while the various angels and devils whisper in his ear. At this point in their careers, it is surely redundant to say how good Hoffman and Giamatti are as the opposing campaign managers but I’m going to say it anyway: they’re really very good indeed. Evan Rachel Wood runs the gamut from flirty and seductive to despairing in her relatively small but pivotal role as a young intern who catches Stephen’s eye, crafting a fully-formed character out of what could have easily been a walking cliché in a lesser actress’ hands. And then there’s George himself, classing up the joint with his occasional appearances as Governor Mike. Based on his campaign trail scenes here, if he announced he was going to run for office he’d probably be elected unopposed. The only disappointment in the cast is Marisa Tomei as New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz, and the disappointment is that she’s not on screen enough.
Despite the last couple hundred words of gushing praise there, I still can’t call this an excellent film. I want to, I really really do, but that black, cynical heart just left me a bit cold. Once the story starts to properly unfold it has a crushing inevitability around it that even the characters themselves can sense. With the political landscape in the real world the way it is, we already know how depressing things are. Would having a glimmer of hope or someone we could root for have changed the film’s stated intent? Undoubtedly. Would having those things have made a more enjoyable film? I think so. The question I leave you with is this: what are you in the mood for; truth or entertainment? It seems impossible to have both.
*You remember him, surely. He was Arnie’s young sidekick in True Lies. Yeah, that guy!