“Beware the Ides of March” is a phrase famously uttered by many an actor over the last 412 years since Shakespeare’s master tragedy “Julius Caesar” found it’s way to the stage.  Shakespeare’s muse while penning The Tragedy of Julius Caesar was largely the political climate of the time.  Written in 1599, Shakespeare’s retelling of a compelling point in Roman history was a deftly crafted parallel of Britain’s uncertain future at the time.  Queen Elizabeth had refused to appoint a successor, and in her tepid lunacy, the public feared the unraveling of Britain’s political structure.

In 2011, we have fallen into a similarly tense political era, where our future is uncertain as we look to another presidential election year.  Although we may not have Shakespeare, we have George Clooney.  George “Julius” Clooney and his new film “The Ides of March.”

My favorite thing about George Clooney is his absolute refusal to be marginalized as a creative force in the film industry. Nor does he seem to accept the limitations of his acting skills. By limitations I mean the focus on his dreamy good looks as opposed to his several and important contributions to the world of film in the recent years. Good for you Mr. Clooney.

My second favorite thing about Clooney (no not his dreamy good looks) is that he isn’t afraid to tackle the world of politics.   I can only imagine that when Clooney first saw Beau Willimon’s Farragut North, (the play on which the Ides of March is based), he was immediately passionate about bringing the material to the screen.  Working as a writer with Willimon and Grant Heslov, (Goodnight, Good Luck), Clooney ended up with a script worthy of recognition.  The end product is a deftly paced, clever, and sometimes snarky drama that borders on true thriller.

The action centers on the Ohio Democratic Primaries, held in March of an election year, and the race between the two leading candidates Governor Mike Morris, (Clooney) and Senator Pullman, (Michael Mantell). Morris’s idealistic staffer, Stephan Myers, (Ryan Gosling), works with feverish passion to get his man elected.  Myers believes in the truth of Morris’s message and makes his passion well known in what may be one of the only snafus in the otherwise tightly drawn narrative; the overstating of Myers’s ideology through his dialogue.  Under the direction of Senior Campaign Manager Paul Zara, (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Myers struggles with the reality that politicians often make back room deals in order to get to the White House.  But Myers accepts them in small doses and is even more dedicated when his hero, Morris, doesn’t.  When Myers makes a giant political blunder by taking a meeting with Pullman’s top man Tom Duffy, (Paul Giamatti), Myers finds himself in a the midst of a dirty political game.

The genius part of this film really is in the taught psychological wire that Gosling is so very skilled at walking in his work.  The Ides of March subtly harkens back to Shakespeare’s masterpiece in which we witness a beautiful turmoil that burns in Brutus as he slowly moves to kill Caesar.  Brutus’s opening speech may very well act as a sort of theme for this script:

 

But ’tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round.
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend.

 

Not nearly as profound, but still compelling is the fire that burns in Myers as he is shoved one way and then pulled the next in a slow unraveling of will and wisdom. Gosling is able to let us into the mind of Myers with nary an effort.  He simply embodies the very “lowliness that is young ambition’s ladder”. We see clearly in Gosling the thought process that takes a man from loyal, idealistic, devoted follower to vengeful, broken, cynical politician.  If the truth of the script comes from Willimon’s own experience on the 2004 Howard Dean campaign, then this country may be plain out of luck when looking for an honest politician.  That lesson is a hard learned one and Gosling is sympathetic and justified in his portrayal of Myers.

George Clooney is not a hard sell as a great political candidate. He is affable and honest.  His performance has the blended truth of a great man with human flaws. What may be a hard sell is that anyone as decidedly far left as Morris is would have gotten as far as he does in this film. Morris openly states that he is not an atheist nor is he religious.  He is anti oil, anti death penalty, pro-gay marriage and pro-choice.  Even Obama cannot admit to supporting gay marriage, although I speculate he might. Even Howard Dean had to adjust his stance on the death penalty when he was running. The only out spoken Morris-like liberal that comes to mind is the easily mockable Dennis Kucinich.  However, the film is aware of this long shot scenario and the result is an eager hopefulness reminiscent of Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is brilliant to watch as Zara.  His ability to convey a truthful reality in any role he tackles is enviable.  His nuance is evidenced in how he affects the other players on the screen.  Hoffman simply raises the bar for his fellow actors, and thankfully, most of them are able to rise to the challenge.

Paul Giamatti as Tom Duffy has a juicy and wonderful task in this film and he executes it beautifully with absolutely no betrayal of the next second.

Marisa Tomei turns in a sassy and colorful performance as Ida Horowicz, a down and dirty reporter that doesn’t mind selling anyone’s soul for a story.

Evan Rachel Wood as Molly Stearns is the only weak link in the cast, which is surprising given her work in 2003’s Thirteen. Wood’s performance is not so bad as it is flat and easily dismissed. Wood is clearly skilled but what served her in Thirteen seems to have been absent here.  Her performance smacks of a lack of emotional wisdom, a reliance on sexy repartee, and surface tears intended to gain sympathy. Her fate is one of the only turns in the film that lands short of believable.

As the film draws to a close, Clooney and Gosling are stunningly dynamic in a scene that any actor would love to play.  It is a thinking man’s game of chess and the players are so skilled that it is hard to call a winner from moment to moment.  The subsequent scene is a fantastic button and a genius use of silence and irony, as well as a nice product placement for Chevrolet. In the end, The Ides of March is an utterly enjoyable and intriguing film that will garner some critical attention, deservedly so.