This must be the year that Ryan Gosling teaches lessons in character to bright young men everywhere. After Drive, George Clooney’s fourth film as director might easily be called Ambition, inasmuch as it replaces Nicolas Winding Refn’s expressionistically barren neo-noir Los Angeles with a Lumet-esque, cold-concrete melodrama in a Midwestern city during primary season. Two Democratic hopefuls (the sitting governor, a sitting senator) duke it out for the state’s delegates and, just as importantly, cache for the general election.
Clooney’s films as director often begin with a familiar point A and conclude at a less-familiar point B, deriving much of their interest from the circuitous path required to navigate the shift; his underrated Leatherheads starts out as something like a Francis the Talking Mule football comedy and somehow morphs into the latter part of Mitchel Leisen’s Midnight. The pattern that’s emerging from his work as a director is that he seems to choose familiar genre material and apply an almost imperceptible filter, leaving some things alone, subtly shaping others. From the very first scene, Clooney carves out a patch of un-drama that I immediately associated with Michael Mann (minus the identifiable visual abstraction), exemplified in an early scene in The Insider, when Lowell Bergman and his cameraman discuss the best way to light a room, as an anticlimactic resolution to a seriocomic showdown with a powerful Hezbollah leader. Its boy-with-a-heart-of-coal hero preemptively, half-heartedly spoofing his candidate’s speech material, The Ides of March segues into Gosling engaging in technical/ceremonial banter with debate coordinators and technicians; without emphasis, the scene illustrates the tiny, inconsequential power relationships that routine, professional interactions depend on. All in the game.
The film’s confident, understated rhythm is appealing, but more than that, Clooney takes a big gamble by pitting another, more conventional movie against the observational one and seeing what happens, almost as if providing his own Hollywood machinery against which to apply his methods of auteur infiltration. The more conventional movie is a Big Scene melodrama a la Lumet or Kazan, in which a baker’s dozen of Oscar-caliber actors and actresses emit speeches in rarified air. It’s the stuff intolerable American classics are made of, and it doesn’t always coordinate well with The Ides of March that Clooney manipulates and tweaks with his patient, nuance-centric style. But the de-dramatizing effects have a way of getting into everything.
The Ides of March seems to be billed as a “how the student became the master,” by implication suggesting that Gosling will follow in his boss’s footsteps and pursue elected office, perhaps even the highest—as if its premise is a mutation of Knocked Up‘s tagline, i.e. “What if this guy somehow won the Presidential election?” The film can scarcely be said to support this. If any metaphorical reduction can be superimposed on the film, and stick, the dramatic ingredients of The Ides of March, which at times approached an expressionist, noir inflection of its hyperrealist, “New York theater” ancestry (and, sometimes, in ways that were less than totally persuasive), play out like a game of high-stakes poker, with fortunes rising and falling in the space between one hand and the next. Gosling’s Stephen occupies a neither/nor space between naïvete and puppetmaster, from his middle-sibling position taking and receiving the artillery fire that is, as Omar Little might say on The Wire, all in the game.