Political thrillers always play well during an election year, and 'The Ides of March' is no exception. George Clooney's literate, impeccably acted adaptation of Beau Willimon's off-Broadway play, 'Farragut North,' is far more absorbing than this year's Republican presidential primary races, accurately depicting the skullduggery, duplicity, and tactical maneuvering that define most political campaigns. Thanks to 24-hour news channels and a relentless press corps determined to root out a candidate's every impropriety, the American public is beyond being shocked by any scandal that comes out of Washington, no matter how immoral or lewd. Consequently, there are no jaw-dropping revelations in 'The Ides of March' to inflame our jaded sensibilities or open our eyes to what really goes on behind the candidates' carefully crafted speeches and glib glad-handing. It's simply a good, solid, no-frills movie that tells it like it is and engenders a knowing nod from its savvy audience.
Much like Clooney's quietly searing look at early broadcast journalism, 'Good Night and Good Luck,' 'The Ides of March' foregoes flashy imagery in favor of introspective close-ups and a slow-burn approach that allow moments to resonate and ideas to percolate. The proof, however, lies in the dialogue, and when it's recited by some of Hollywood's finest character actors, it adopts a seductive musicality that heightens its impact. Though it takes a while for the film to rev its engine, once it gets in gear, this study in arrogance, disillusionment, and professional brutality brandishes some sharp canines as it chows down on the dog-eat-dog political world with relish.
Ryan Gosling portrays Stephen Meyers, a young, brash, idealistic consultant in the George Stephanopoulos vein who advises aspiring presidential hopeful Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), a Clinton/Obama hybrid running neck-and-neck with a popular senator for the Democratic nomination. The tight race has come down to the all-important Ohio primary, where both candidates pull out all the stops in a last-ditch effort to win their party's favor. Both seek the endorsement (and delegates) of Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), whose support should seal the deal, and hope to avoid any blunders that might sabotage their chance to win the White House. Stephen worships Morris, and dismisses the blunt yet prescient assessment of the governor by New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei): "He's a nice guy. He will let you down sooner or later."
Stephen's superior is the grizzled and rumpled senior advisor Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a cynical, war-weary veteran of many campaigns who knows the game and the score better than anyone. Stephen aspires to one day reach Paul's level, so his ego is flattered and ambitious nature titillated when rival consultant Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) asks him to jump ship and join the staff of the opposition. Stephen rebuffs the inappropriate offer, but sees nothing inappropriate about bedding one of Morris' interns, the 20-year-old, Monica Lewinsky-esque Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), daughter of Jack Stearns (Gregory Itzin), the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The brazenly forward Molly knows how to get what she wants, but soon finds herself in over her head, unwillingly becoming both a pawn in the power plays of Morris' staff and a ticking time bomb that could blow up the governor's entire campaign.
'The Ides of March' starts slow, and its archetypal characters resemble real figures a bit too closely, but Clooney's firm hand as director and co-writer keeps the film focused and on track. Without much ado, he captures the controlled chaos of a political campaign, the drudgery and fatigue that counterbalance bursts of adrenaline, and both the wide-eyed idealism and dour cynicism of young and weathered staffers alike. He also subtly shows how easy it is to be blinded by a candidate's charisma and swept away by an image of hope and change that oh-so-deftly hides the real man lurking behind it. From an insider's perspective, we witness how an altruistic crusade quickly morphs into a bitter war, and the casualty count, as Stephen learns firsthand, can be severe. Winning is everything, and with no rules to play by, everyone's hands get dirty.
The well-tread territory makes the story seem familiar, but the fine ensemble cast Clooney has assembled helps boost the freshness quotient. Gosling is rapidly becoming Hollywood's busiest actor, yet his performances never suffer. He possesses a magnetism that rivals Clooney's, and though the two don't share as many scenes as we might like, they create a crackling chemistry that consistently propels the film. Gosling underplays well, and makes his character an identifiable everyman, whose gradual disillusionment with the machine in which he's a vital cog often mirrors our own. Clooney was born to play a candidate (if he ran for real, America would almost certainly elect him), yet he never coasts on his slick charm and prettyboy looks; there's a sharp yet indirect edge to his portrayal that's refreshing, and resonates long after the movie ends.
Hoffman and Giamatti as the opposing chief consultants are both priceless, crafting memorable characters and enhancing the dialogue with their masterful delivery and invisible technique. Wright and Tomei also impress in smaller roles, but it's Wood, as the pivotal Molly, who almost steals the picture. Luminous, vulnerable, yet also frighteningly sexy and confident beyond her years, she grabs our attention and holds us transfixed whenever she's on screen. Without her, 'The Ides of March' would not be nearly as stirring and powerful.
Chances are good Clooney's film will not go down in history as one of the all-time great political thrillers, but it's nevertheless a tight, solid effort that takes no prisoners in its depiction of an arena where we've all had ring-side seats. The candidates may change, the issues may evolve, the stakes may rise and fall, but the all-important game remains the same. And with acuity and grace, 'The Ides of March' shows us how it's played.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Ides of March' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case with rather hideous cover art. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Upon insertion of the disc, a high-octane promo for Sony's Blu-ray line plays first, followed by a trio of trailers for 'Drive,' 'Moneyball,' and 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,' before the movie's full-motion menu with music pops up.
'The Ides of March' sports a handsome transfer that just misses hitting a homerun. Contrast and clarity are superior, with a fine grain structure contributing to a smooth, film-like appearance. Deep black levels supply excellent depth (a striking silhouette shot is a perfect example), yet shadow detail never suffers, and the bright whites (most noticeable when harsh shafts of sunlight stream through Morris' airplane windows) resist blooming. Colors remain a bit tempered - there are no lush locales or flashy wardrobes in this nuts-and-bolts political drama - but Wood's blonde locks and the patriotic reds and blues exhibit a fair degree of vibrancy. Natural-looking fleshtones are another plus, from Wood's creamy complexion to Clooney's omnipresent Cary Grant tan.
Close-ups are crisp and exude pleasing amounts of detail, and the texture of fabrics and upholstery is nicely rendered. Background elements are always easy to discern, and the source material is spotless, with nary a nick or scratch sullying the image. No banding, digital noise, or artificial enhancements could be detected either.
Fans of this film will appreciate this top-flight effort from Sony, which does this elegant film proud.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track supplies high quality sound; there just isn't much activity to maximize the platform's capabilities. The dialogue-based film properly prioritizes conversations, so every word is clear and comprehendible, even when spoken in hushed, conspiratorial tones. Stereo separation up front is often distinct and nicely widens the soundscape. Surround accents are limited, but some nice atmospherics, such as rain and crowd noise, enhance the track and provide a subtle hint of immersion.
The understated music score by Alexandre Desplat also comes across well, supplying muted emphasis to many scenes and filling the room with warm tones and bright fidelity. Dynamic range is fine, with little to test the limits of both the high and low ends. Solid bass frequencies add a bit of weight here and there, but there aren't any booming explosions or dance club sequences to work out the woofer.
All in all, this is a clean, crisp track that complements the action without intruding upon it.
Only a few slick extras punch up this release.
Subtle yet searing, 'The Ides of March' takes us behind the curtain of the political stage, and lays bare the machinations that often define a run for office. A first-rate ensemble cast infuses this taut tale with a heady combination of elegance and grit, while a meaty script and firm direction steer the film to its affecting climax. The Blu-ray presentation features video as slick as the sparring candidates, excellent audio, and a fair array of supplements that, like most political hopefuls, sadly lack the degree of substance we desire. Especially relevant now, yet possessing good staying power, 'The Ides of March' will satisfy your craving for potent performances and engrossing drama during this primary season and beyond. Recommended.