In William Shakespeare’s political drama Julius Caesar, the titular Roman statesman is famously warned to “beware the Ides of March,” which unbeknownst to him is the date of his brutal assassination. Led by Caesar’s closest ally Marcus Brutus, a group of politicians stab Caesar to death in the name of honor and patriotism. But what is born from the killing is Brutus’ internal battle between right and wrong, pride and loyalty. In George Clooney’s latest directorial and screenwriting effort, The Ides of March, ambitious campaign aide Stephen Myers is plagued with the same struggle that strikes Brutus in Shakespeare’s take on the historical account. Of course, Clooney’s tale is set during a contemporary presidential campaign, but the idea is familiar in a gripping and stunningly performed modern political tragedy.
At the start of the film, Myers (Ryan Gosling) is a young and driven campaign manager teetering on the line between self-righteousness and rightly earned confidence. He even claims to have worked on more campaigns than most aides by the time they reach the age of 40. The Democratic candidate to whom he caters is Mike Morris (a seldom seen Clooney), who delivers his speeches with such confidence and conviction that it’s hard not to side with him. Both Myers and Morris think they’ve secured a surefire win, until Myers catches wind of an explosive sex scandal involving an intern (Evan Rachel Wood) that could destroy Morris. On top of discovering a bombshell, Myers is approached by the opponent’s campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) to work for the other side. Facing pressure from colleague and confidante Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a loud-mouthed reporter (Marisa Tomei), Myers struggles with an internal conflict between loyalty and integrity, ideals that battle within him in a game of tug-of-war. As he slowly crumbles under the burden of his inner war between right and wrong, Myers attempts to bring Morris down, but things don’t exactly go as planned. As the film trudges on, it becomes clear that the man who thought he knew everything about the underground workings of politics hasn’t got a clue about what goes on behind closed doors. Myers’ loss of innocence after getting a rude awakening on dirty politics is the true tragedy of the film.
As Myers, Gosling once again proves himself to be one of the most dedicated actors of his generation. He disappears into the role, and wears Myers’ struggle to achieve morality on his sleeve. Given the number of films in which Gosling has appeared this year, he has secured the right to go head to head with perhaps today’s most iconic film star, Clooney. The on-screen interactions between Gosling and Clooney are so tense that their heated encounters — especially one in which Myers confronts Morris about his affair — leave us on the edge of our seats. As Morris, Clooney, well, plays Clooney. But he makes up for his brief and predictable screen time with his work behind the camera. His direction creates sufficient friction amongst the players, especially the building tension between Myers and Morris. The actors also make the most of the script, also co-written by Clooney. In particular, Hoffman makes Zara the quiet hero of the film whose expression of personal conviction culminates in a powerful speech that triggers Myers to question his own principles. The additional supporting players also leave a memorable mark. Giamatti is stealthily manipulative as the campaign manager for Morris’ competition. Wood successfully exhibits a youthful outlook that is later destroyed by a mistake she made that could put the lives of everyone around her in jeopardy. As an eager political reporter, Tomei delivers her lines with a bite as she tries to read Myers. But in the end, the performances and the film itself are held up by Gosling’s portrayal of a young idealist who witnesses the destruction of whatever he believed in.
While it’s not perfect and might leave viewers wanting more, The Ides of March is a compelling and riveting piece of work that doesn’t fail to keep viewers intrigued. What’s more remarkable is that it makes the age-old tale of the death of idealism prevalent in a modern day story. The film’s portrayal of the scandalous inner-workings of a presidential campaign, as well as some extraordinary performances, make it all the more captivating and relevant for the CNN age.