When I first created this blog, I didn’t expect I’d be uploading anything outside of creative writing outputs. I have an account on a different site that I use to keep track of the films I’ve seen and to log reviews. But very recently, I stumbled upon a film that, in my disclaimer, isn’t at all what you’d call “special” enough to have a separate review uploaded here.
That film was Ides of March (2011, dir. George Clooney). There is so much to unpack about the film that I feel it would be a great disservice to settle with an “adequate” review. The thing is, not every baggage or box you unpack is a present. This baggage was purely unnecessary and useless.
Before I begin, I’d like to say for the record that when the credits started rolling, all I was thinking at first was, “did I just watch a prequel to the House of Cards?”
Alright, now that’s out of the way, here we go. For starters, the film was interesting. And I don’t mean that in a negative way; like how you’d say “interesting” when someone pitches you an idea that is so off, you wonder how the human brain can even come up with such. I mean, it was a concept and I felt hooked from start to finish; I did not doze off and I wasn’t visibly cringing at all. I could almost say I enjoyed it. However, it really is very easy to enjoy something you don’t deconstruct or don’t think through. So let me break it down, highlight pros and cons, for the benefit of us all, especially me. (Incoming spoilers!)
PROS. Here, I’ve made a list of everything good, no, great about the film.
- Concept-wise: George Clooney’s concept and vision for the film was something. Something, meaning, I couldn’t say it was all that original – it wasn’t, not very much. Let alone, perfect. But, it was realistic, attainable, and grounded, which made it very impressive.
- Plot-wise: On the whole, it was a political thriller that did not rely on surprising and being-on-the-edge-of-your-seat twists to make it striking. For the most part, it stayed simple, not extorting from the viewers the taxing job of predicting “next moves” or guessing “what’s what?” or “who wins?” It was honest and it was brilliant.
- Dialogue-wise: Again, realistic. Everyone was talking like a real politician. Reporters were talking like politicians. Interns were talking like politicians. Politicians were talking like politicians. It was a stretch that was, in my opinion, necessary to make the movie all the more effective and relatable.
- Acting-wise: I cannot say anything against Clooney (Governor Mike Morris) and his company in this film. Ryan Gosling (Stephen Meyers) was predictable, but that’s okay because he excelled in what he does best which is honest drama. Philip Seymour Hoffman (Paul Zara), well, he is always on point and this was not an exception. Even Evan Rachel Wood (Molly Stearns) did a pretty swell job.
CONS. Yet, here we are. In my early defense, this could probably come out as nitpicking too much which, right now, I would not apologize for. Everything coming up next focuses on plot holes and concept mistakes that really got under my skin (in no particular order).
- Stephen Meyers was introduced to be really smart and effective and clever. When he was let go by Paul Zara, the easiest, simplest, and most effective solution wouldn’t have been to go to the opposition hoping that your black propaganda ace against your former employer is good enough to land you a job. No. The most effective would have been to go straight to Governor Mike Morris because then, the blackmail would have been effortless and seamless. Molly Stearns would have been alive and bouncing well enough to scare the Morris, giving him no room for second thoughts. Now, that wasn’t exactly “clever” on Stephen’s part.
- Stephen was packaged as both ambitious and idealistic. But, let’s be honest. In the arena of politics, ambition NEVER goes with idealism. Because if it does, that’s just naïve, plain and simple. And naïve is the opposite of bright and clever. Which brings me back to my first point.
- Morris giving in to Stephen’s demands when he was blackmailed was the most ridiculous part. Come on. He was confident that the desperate ex-employee had nothing up his sleeve. He even did the numbers right in front of Stephen. Molly is dead. The phone is obviously empty. You ask how he could be sure? Think. Molly killed herself because she was certain Stephen had gone to the opposition and had leaked the secret she so dearly kept. Meaning, she killed herself not wanting to see the scandal playing out and her, getting caught in the middle of it. She knew for a fact that it would leak. So if she already had that in mind, what was the need for a note? Why make a bigger celebrity out of herself by admitting straight out that she committed suicide? To which Stephen answers, “She was 20.” Really? I’ve seen smarter 19-year olds and he’s talking about a 20-year old intern for a big political campaign, who also happens to be the daughter of a huge political figure. So, Stephen had nil and the press would have simply eaten him alive had he gone public without any proof. Yet, Paul ends up unemployed and Stephen, a naïve and, honestly, downright gullible and dense employee lands a position he does not deserve. What are my parameters for being “deserving”? Well, it’s politics. You have to KNOW how to get dirty. You have to KNOW how to play with power dynamics. Stephen DID. But he doesn’t KNOW.
- At some point, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) gave Stephen a talk about how in politics, you need to learn how to be cynical. But also, not unpredictable and not unstable which can be caused by the desire for revenge. So, the first part clearly foreshadows the turn that Stephen made (predictably inevitable, might I add) especially with him now pushing Morris to take Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright) on his demands for the endorsement. The second part, however, highlights another character inconsistency towards the end. Stephen’s move to have Paul fired by Morris still clearly carries revenge. Now, that isn’t unseen of in real-life politics, yes. But if the film wanted to tell a story so bad that it gave Tom Duffy all that talking spotlight, you have to at least be faithful to your concept. In the end, Stephen turned out to be nothing but an uncontrollable and undisciplined joke for a politician. Desiring nothing but revenge, to prove something to himself. Now, that is not a man made by politics to play politics. That is a man to be conquered and defeated by politics.
- The film did so much to portray Stephen as an extremely motivated newbie in the scene of politics without actually showing any motivation. All it showed was how good Stephen was at writing statements and scripts. The rest of it was only achieved through other characters speaking praises of him. In short, it was extremely lacking and extremely bland.
You see, my point in all this is, if you want to make a great film, you can never, NEVER, neglect your characters. You may have an amazing concept, a brilliant script, world-class actors, and a world-class production team, but you need to remember to write and shoot your characters as if they were real and rational human beings. Not some people born out of pages who would also immediately vanish as soon as the pages run out or the credits start rolling. Especially in a political thriller that tried so hard to be deeply embedded in the realities of our current society and system, the viewers need to be able to see your characters living to be who you made them out to be in the ending. If it were up to me, based on Stephen’s actions and characterization, Stephen did not deserve that break no matter how hard the film tried to make it look like he had learned the ways of politics. And that makes the film disappointing and underwhelming.
Clooney’s film could have had everything working for it. Looking at it as a whole projects it as an outstanding film that really met, or maybe even exceeded, expectations. Unfortunately, the brilliance of filmmaking and storytelling lies in how well you can balance the general and the specific; the significant and the trivial; the big picture and the smaller acts.
Ides of March fell completely short.