George Clooney’s first directorial effort since 2008’s “Leatherheads” abandons the screwball comedy that derailed that film and returns to the socially conscious sparring of 2005’s “Good Night, and Good Luck.” “The Ides of March” is not only a clear evolution of Clooney’s directorial style, but an impressive piece of intelligent, adult cinema; political intrigue of the highest degree.
Clooney makes a splash in front of the camera as well, co-starring as presidential candidate Mike Morris, whose campaign is headed up by Stephen (Ryan Gosling) and Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman). His opponent for the Democratic nomination for president barely registers in the film, represented instead by campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). When Tom calls a meeting with Stephen under mysterious circumstances, Stephen’s professional and personal career begin to implode, and most of the film deals with Stephen scrambling to stay afloat in a vicious game where everyone knows more than him.
The cast Clooney has assembled couldn’t have more pedigree if it tried, from acting giants Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman to fellow Oscar nominees Ryan Gosling and Marisa Tomei, not to mention former indie queen Evan Rachel Wood. Predictably, everyone’s operating at the top of their forms here. Gosling has been having a hell of a year between this, “Crazy, Stupid Love” and “Drive,” and he manages to turn in a performance filled with long interludes of nothing but Stephen thinking, trying to work out all the pieces in his head, and manages to make it equally compelling but radically different from his performance in “Drive.” When Stephen finally figures it all out, things get even more intense and Gosling easily holds his own against some of modern cinema’s heavyweights.
Evan Rachel Wood’s performance as a seductive intern is sultry yet human, and Paul Giamatti is underused but predictably great as the opposing campaign manager. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a stunning performance, perhaps his best since 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” and delivers an incredible monologue about loyalty midway through the film that’s a true showstopper. Even cinematic chameleon Jeffrey Wright pops in for a few scenes, and manages to round out a slightly underwritten antagonist easily. Clooney’s character doesn’t get much to do, but he knows how to win an audience and deliver a speech, and, apart from one great, dramatic moment late in the film, that’s all he’s asked to do.
However, Clooney gets plenty of chances to show off behind the camera. Along with directing and starring, Clooney co-writes with Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon. Clooney adapted Willimon’s play “Farragut North” and while his script and dialogue is a prime example of how to translate a play to screen, the film’s theatrical roots never overpower the material’s cinematic appeal. Clooney’s direction never calls attention to itself, even when finding some memorable, creative images. Clooney also bathes the film in shadows as the characters delve into increasingly shady territory, and a climactic moment in a kitchen between Gosling’s character and his own is a marvel, drawing the audience in visually before the characters rip into each other verbally.
“The Ides of March” is the best kind of film that we see during Oscar season — a genuinely involving, mature drama that gives its audience plenty to chew on, and allows us to see Hollywood’s best actors doing what they do best. The film is packed with powerhouse performances and is easily Clooney’s best work behind the camera to date. Expect to be hearing a lot about this smart, memorable film going forward.