“The Ides of March” follows the run-up to the Ohio Democratic primary, with Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney, also directing) and Arkansas Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell) the last two candidates standing. The race is close, and we learn that the winner will be the prohibitive favorite in the general election.
This is a formidable cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are the heads of the Morris and Pullman campaigns, Marisa Tomei is a New York Times reporter, Evan Rachel Wood a young intern. But this is not a broad, interlocking-pieces movie, instead focusing narrowly on Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), the young media mastermind who is second-in-command of the Morris team. This somewhat defuses the potential for fast-paced scheming but lets us be disarmed as Myers is whenever news arrives and to weigh options alongside him when he has to make decisions.
I’m not sure how to take Myers. Is he a novice idealist or a skilled politico? We don’t get to see much evidence of the superior abilities that everyone – bosses, peers, competitors, flatterers – attribute to him. He is supposed to be smart, capable and experienced beyond his years, but he is easily outmaneuvered by his seniors and shows questionable judgment. To Tomei’s reporter he on the one hand claims idealism to distinguish himself from the well-worn Hoffman, but on the other insists that at the age of 30 he has worked on more campaigns than most others would by 40. It is a puzzle that is never fully resolved, as even Myers’ successes seem more reactive than proactive. Maybe he is more tactician than strategist.
Although it’s nice not to adhere strictly to the standard operating procedure of establishing the hero as an expert before challenging him, these unresolved questions become important because of Myers’ centrality. For a political drama to forgo both clear personal antagonism and complex intrigue is a refreshing risk, but in that case I would perhaps have preferred to know more about Myers.
In Gosling’s other recent starring feature “Drive” his no-name, no-background character is established as a meticulous expert, where here he is merely in charge, so that we somehow know both more and less about him. Here, as there, Gosling is wonderfully patient, with the best moments being when he is processing unexpected news but hasn’t yet reached a decision. Surely Myers – and the audience – can’t be learning for the first time that politics is a dirty business. Gosling’s performance and the unflinching focus on Myers form a good illustration of a point that on reflection should maybe be no less obvious: politics is a lonely business. The film opens with Myers alone on a stage, and ends with him alone in an interview chair, his face filling the screen, and that is really how it has to be all along.