Into the Dark

Film review: The Ides of March (Director: George Clooney)

By Sascha Krieger

A young man goes up to a microphone and starts speaking, hardly audible. Standard political phrases disintegrating into meaningless bla bla and ending in non-verbal noises. There is a certain playfulness to this, a lack of seriousness. It is, after all, a rehearsal only. Two hours later the same man will be on another stage, sitting upright, staring stone-faced into a camera.There is nothing playful anymore. Between these two scenes lies a story of disillusionment, a study in the changes circumstances can bring about in a person, a study in the deformation of character power is known to cause. The Ides of March is an uncompromising, bleak and chilling portrait of the serious business politics have become, of its perpetrators, its victims, of how to survive and at what cost.

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is 30 and he is near the top of his business. As the number 2 man and media expert in Governor Mike Morris‘ (George Clooney) presidential campaign, he is as close to real power as he can be. Unlike Morris‘ campaign chief (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Stephen cares for more than winning. He is a believer, he truly believes in Morris. When approached by the manager of the opponent’s campaign, he shrugs it off. He can only work for something he believes in. This is the first part of the film in which everything seems to be exactly as it appears. Clooney plays the governor as a believable man who honestly pursues what he believes in. Given the chance to buy a former opponent’s endorsement and with it the nomination, he refuses. There are plots and schemes, but everyone is on the right side.

Or are they? Halfway through the film there is a turning point. It starts as a small yet dirty secret which can be brushed away just like that. But it cannot. It shatters the very foundation on which the house of cards was built. Stephen finds himself in the middle of a tornado of lies and schemes and chooses to play. And so the boyish enthusiast whose professionalism never stifles his idealistic belief in fighting what is good turns into a master schemer which an impenetrable face.

Yet on the outside nothing changes: Morris is still the charming candidate he was, everything is business as usual. But the same thing that just seemed honest and genuine now appears hollow and hypocritical. Clooney, the director, masterfully creates the sense of a fundamental seachange even though nothing really changes. A lot of this is due to actor Clooney who excels in absence: even when he’s on screen he’s never really there.  Morris is an idea, a projection which can mean anything. And as circumstances change, the image changes to. He is the figure in the dark, in shadowy corner as in the film’s key scene. He is whatever people want him to be. And he will be Stephen’s role model.

The view of politics presented in this film is relentlessly bleak. There is no innocence or rather it is crushed – literally or, as in Stephen’s case, lured to the dark side. Politics is portrayed as a ruthless power struggle in which you can only succeed if you’re more ruthless than the others. Some plot twists are too sensational, the overall picture might have deserved a little grey between the black and the white and the last 20 minutes feel rushed.

But in the end this is a gripping and chilling political thriller which is strong on turning hardly detectable nuances into gamechangers. Suddenly the atmosphere is turned upside down, heaven becomes hell and we are left to wonder how it all happened. And in the middle is Ryan Gosling in a performance that encases all the film’s essence in one body, one face. There was a time when George Clooney was just a pretty face. Those days are long gone.

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