Actor-directors have been said to focus a lot more on performance. Actor George Clooney (director of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck, Leatherheads) has struck me as a guy who walks that tightrope of trying to balance all-star casts while being equally adept at telling the story with a camera. I feel like other recent actor-directors (i.e. Sean Penn, Jon Favreau, Ben Affleck) he only grows with each film, sometimes substantially and sometimes minimally. With The Ides of March, I think I see his greatest improvement in storytelling to come from his strengths as a screenwriter. I do realize he wrote the script with Beau Willimon (based on his play, Farragut North) and usual co-writer Grant Heslov, but this script is one that I would call taut (as many others already have). By this I mean that the script is very tense, without any narrative "slack" as to never let up.
The film follows junior campaign manager Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) who is working to ensure the election of Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) who is running for President. Their goal is to win the Ohio primary elections which requires the support of state Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright). Myers is an idealist, which contrasts with his boss Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a realist. He believes in all the "bullshit", as reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) puts it, that doesn't always belong in the world of campaigning. One day, Stephen gets a call from the fellow Democrat-competition's campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), to meet for a few drinks. Duffy tries to hire Myers and in the process Myers manages to learn something about the competition. I'll stop there at the inciting event because from that point on, the film ventures into a plot that is as unpredictable as it is dark.
I should point out that this is a film more about the world of campaigning than policy. The script may be making reference to the lives/campaigns of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Howard Dean, but they just provide the context of a world full of politics. This movie is more about backstabbing and themes of loyalty and not about Republican ideals versus Democratic ones (if anything, this film makes it out to seem as if both sides have their fair share of solutions and problems). This movie is more about a loss of innocence when a man needs it the most and I'm not talking about Morris, I'm talking about Myers. One might think it would be the politician who goes through these sort of moments, but here it is Myers faces all the ups and downs.
This film features the best cast I've seen this year so far. Gosling continues to amaze and Clooney demonstrates the two traits I've always admired in some of his most memorable characters- his charm and his cutthroat demeanor. Evan Rachel Wood is also exemplary in the important role of Morris intern Molly Stearns who is Myers's love interest, but also the daughter of the chairman of the Democratic National Convention. With the caliber of acting giving the material such strength, I'm still pleased with how Clooney, Heslov, and Willimon have still chosen a great moment to have the story end. It's right when you feel so damn depressed, not out of sadness, but of pity. You see some "tough-shit" cynicism that destroys Stephen's own idealism. Facing reality as Myers does only leaves him where the script leaves its audience, in the realm of ambiguity fueled by many conflicting emotions.