The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011)

For your future’s sake, I’m the candidate (spoiler notice)

The Ides of March shows the power of constraint.

Ryan Gosling stars as an up-and-coming spin doctor working for a Democratic US presidential candidate. In this political drama the smallest misstep can cost one their head and yes, the film’s title proves portentous. Just as Julius Caesar was warned to be wary of the ides of March, so every character in this tale of American politics has multiple daggers aimed at their back – often in the hands of those closest to them.

Constraint shows in what director Clooney (actor, director and writer – truly the creative driving force behind this endeavor) chose not to show. Though tensions run high and there are many confrontations, big emotional explosions happen entirely off-screen. All we see is the fallout, the post-nuclear maneuvering of assets, players and pawns. None of the characters express the mental breakdowns that they are enduring. Careers are ruined, lovers lost, morals compromised, but Freddie Mercury sang it correctly: “Inside my heart is breaking, my make up may be flaking, but my smile still stays on.” The show must go on and the electorate can be none the wiser.

Constraint gives the film scenes that are breathtaking in their audacity and effectiveness. When one of the campaign’s front men gets into the candidate’s limousine to hear he’s fired, both we and he know dirty tricks are being played, and that this is a defining moment in the character’s arc. Yet instead of making us privy to the conversation, we stay outside the car, hearing nothing for its duration. When the man finally steps out and we see his helpless reaction, the tension is already higher than any live exposition could’ve made it. Besides being storytelling excellence, this doubles as a metaphor for how political power often works behind the screens. How much is going on that the audience doesn’t hear?

Constraint defines Gosling, in yet another powerful role with which he dominated 2011 (The Ides of March stands firmly beside Crazy, Stupid, Love and Drive). His descent from idealistic youth to, inevitably, corrupt pragmatist is so incremental, so understandable. With a thousand small nudges he is pushed to break himself down. Yet when we finally see him crack, there is a windshield in between us, and the rain does the crying for him. The next moment, he is immaculate again, irreproachable. One is reminded of Gene Hackman’s character Harry Caul in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation.

At the end of the film we are left with a devastating image of Gosling that, typically, excels by being subtle. It is the perfect, bitter ending to this powerful, political character study, elevated to great heights by Gosling’s chilling performance and Clooney’s masterful direction.

Roderick Leeuwenhart

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