The Ides of March (2011)

(In theaters, October 2011) As with many backroom political thrillers, The Ides of March tells the story of how a young political wunderkind loses his illusions while working for a star candidate.  If you’ve read Joe Klein/Anonymous’s Primary Colors or seen 1996’s City Hall, you have a rough idea of how this works.  But familiarity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially as the similitudes taper off toward the end, and the result is a convincing look at the way American politics can work.  Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of a genius-level political operative makes for a sympathetic hero, and he more than holds his own against such notables as George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti.  (It’s one of the film’s interesting choices to use a star Clooney as a superstar candidate, character-actor darlings Hoffman and Giamatti as seasoned professionals and Gosling as an up-and-comer –a good example of Hollywood typecasting working as casting.)  Perhaps the best thing about The Ides of March is its pitch-perfect portrayal of the political process at the primary stage –the ground-level organizing, the dirty tricks, the high-level negotiations in dismal settings.  Director Clooney does a fine job as portraying the grey nature of mid-March winter in Cincinnati, and the film quickly becomes a must-see for American political junkies, who won’t cringe too much at the film’s faithfulness to reality as we know it.  It almost goes without saying that, despite being loosely based on a play loosely based on the Howard Dean campaign, The Ides of March is best interpreted as a what-if rather than an allegory of anything that really happened recently: despite the political in-jokes, if best to appreciate the actors working as character rather than caricatures.  It’s unclear whether the film will have much of a wide appeal beyond left-leaning politicos: like many political thrillers, it ends at a funeral, but unlike many it doesn’t feature a single raised gun, conspiracy or assassination attempt.  It’s this nominal adherence to a plausible version of reality (with a side-order of capable performances) that makes The Ides of March works well despite familiar ideas and a low-key presentation.  Sometimes, you don’t need car chases and explosions to have a thrilling time.

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