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Movie Review: 'The Ides of March'

By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

For the protagonist and for us, it's a crash course in dirty politics.  Or, as it's usually called, "politics."

The Ides of March is a taut, cerebral, completely absorbing political drama as well as an ends-and-means morality tale about integrity and loyalty, soul-selling and seduction, compromise and corruption, and betrayal.  And that's just before lunch.

Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Meyers, the heretofore idealistic press secretary and media strategist for the charismatic governor of Pennsylvania, Mike Morris, played by George Clooney, who is vying to win the hard-fought, crucial Democratic presidential primary in Ohio.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti play the rival campaign managers, Evan Rachel Wood a Morris intern, and Marisa Tomei a political reporter for the New York Times covering the campaign.

Meyers makes the mistake of responding to a manipulative invitation from a political operative cagier and more experienced than he, and ends up in trouble.

After two more incidents in which he is placed in check by masters of political chess, scandal rears its ugly head when he's told about an alleged indiscretion on the part of the man he's working for that puts the whole campaign in jeopardy.

All of a sudden, Meyers has decisions to make about his own cherished values and priorities, with no less than his entire career at stake. But perhaps it's time for him to demonstrate what a quick learner he is.

The screenplay by director Clooney (Good Night, and Good Luck; Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; Leatherheads), Grant Heslov (with whom he co-produced as well), and Beau Willimon is based on Willimon's play, "Farragut North" (a play the title of which is a Washington Metro stop and in which the governor never appears as a character).  It's first-rate, with a plot that envelops us and crackling dialogue that's smart and convincing throughout.

The arresting script contains what seems like a purposeful layer of ambiguity throughout its examination of the seeming futility of idealism in American politics and the way human nature always gets in the way.

The audience does not get all our questions answered, so narrative disagreements will definitely prevail in post-film discussions. That's not a bad thing.

Triple-threat Clooney's work with the stellar cast he has assembled and directed is exemplary.  Could you possibly find two more credible actors than Hoffman and Giamatti?  They and their castmates each register forcefully and memorably, with nary a false moment and plenty of electricity generated in scenes of pure back-and-forth, standing-in-place conversation.  Here is a dialogue-drenched film that grabs and grips and grows.

And although the script slyly inserts more than a few editorial comments that probably reveal the political leanings of the screenwriters, it remains a dissection of the bilateral political landscape, not an accusatory unilateral diatribe from the left looking rightward.

This fable about corruption is a dark, cynical take on our political system-- specifically, presidential campaigns -- but it's also a bracing exploration of human nature.

No, the film doesn't break much in the way of new ground, or unearth anything that we haven't learned and unlearned over and over again.  But it's at the very least a fascinating update of our species' penchant for political chicanery.

So we'll elect 3½ stars out of 4.   No need to beware The Ides of March. It's terrific.

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