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‘The Ides of March’ Squeaks By on Performances

by Trey Hock on October 7, 2011

in Print Reviews

With a contentious political landscape and an election just ahead that looks to be one of the more divisive we’ve had in recent memory, viewers should be primed for a compelling political drama, chock full of backroom deals, scandal and intrigue.

From director George Clooney, “The Ides of March” follows Stephen (Ryan Gosling), an ambitious young assistant campaign manager, and his bid to help his candidate Mike Morris (Clooney) win the White House. Along the way the will of this young idealist is tested through political opposition, intra-campaign adversaries, and personal scandal.

The themes within “Ides” crop up in most political dramas. We get a young idealist who must come to grips with political realities that don’t allow for idealism. Stephen must time and again find ways of justifying compromise, while trying to maintain his integrity and his beliefs, which motivated him to sign on to the campaign.

Power and its corrupting influence also play a dominant role throughout the film. As Stephen makes various discoveries concerning his candidate’s dealings, he is consistently put in positions of power or powerlessness, and we watch how it affects and consumes him.

Clooney is an actor’s director. He places his emphasis on performances instead of controlled visuals and framing to tell his story. Often his shot choice seems ill-suited to the emotional content of the moment.

In one particular scene of developing emotional intimacy between Stephen and Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), a young intern, we are shouldered out of the moment through a series of over-the-shoulder shots. Instead of feeling like a conscious decision to keep the viewer slightly out of the exchange, the framing feels like an afterthought.

Luckily the script by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon is smart, and the cast that Clooney pulls in is a powerhouse. Veterans Philip Seymour Hoffman, as campaign manger Paul Zara; Paul Giamatti, as a rival campaign manager Tom Duffy; and Marisa Tomei, as New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz, all create excellent and well-developed characters.

Ryan Gosling continues his streak of successes as he again turns in a masterful performance, and continues to give me hope that he is on a trajectory similar to a young Robert De Niro or Dustin Hoffman, who were for so long able to balance their popular roles against their critically acclaimed ones.

Evan Rachel Wood, as Morris campaign intern Molly Stearns, was a welcomed surprise and a strong compliment to the sea of star power around her.

If there were one criticism of the performances it would be Clooney himself, who felt flat in the midst of such vibrant and compelling actors.

“The Ides of March” brings up thoughts of “All the President’s Men” and maybe even subtle hints of “The Manchurian Candidate.” Both are better films, but if you need a solid political thriller, with acceptably mediocre direction and some great acting, then “The Ides of March” should satisfy.

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alan Rapp October 7, 2011 at 8:28 am

I think you’re being a little too hard on the film (which I consider one of the year’s best). Clooney actually makes a fair amount of impressive choices from behind the camera including teasing the viewer by refusing to show us one of the script’s most pivotal scenes as the camera stays outside the car in which the conversation takes place.


2 Trey Hock October 7, 2011 at 8:47 am


I think that you’re being far too kind. I enjoyed the film, almost entirely because of the script and the acting. The direction, while not terrible, wasn’t exceptional by any means. Clooney does little more than point his camera at the action and roll. Luckily he’s pointing that camera at some great actors.


3 Michael Dalton October 9, 2011 at 5:41 pm

I agree with Alan about the film, I also find it to be one of the year’s best and incredibly gripping and well acted. Have to disagree you with about Clooney Trey, as Alan said he was able to squeeze great tension out of scenes which merely involve a stationery vehicle. You say that all Clooney did was point his camera at the action and roll…is that not what all directors do? The fact that his direction was unpretentious and not showy aided rather than detracted from the film. He let the performances and the story shine, isn’t that a director’s job? Is there not an argument to be had that the best director is the one you don’t notice?

My review of The Ides of March:


4 Trey Hock October 9, 2011 at 5:41 pm


Is there not an argument to be had that the best director is the one you don’t notice?

You are mistaking the role of the director for the the role of most producers. A producer is an incredibly influential and often creative person, but they choose the artists (writers, director, actors) to bring their individual artistry to bear on the final work produced. A producer you don’t see could be a very good thing indeed.

A director on the other hand is the one who tells the story. He chooses the style, often picks the production designer and cinematographer. He shapes and molds the way he will present the story visually. If someone were to read a story to you, you would not want them to do so in a monotone drone devoid of inflection. So a director that you don’t notice is a terrible thing. The cinematic equivalent to a pile of cold unseasoned mashed potatoes.

While I’m not saying that Clooney’s direction is awful, it is lazy. He sets the camera up for almost all his conversations in three shots. A wide, and an OTS of each character – all at eye level. Occasionally there will be a slight variant as dictated by the space, but that’s it.

If he allows his actors to tell the story for him, then he’s not pulling his full weight as a director. He could use his camera to tell the story instead of relying solely on the skill of his actors. I am also concerned that you’re so quick to dismiss “pretentious” cinema. I don’t like pretension in anything, but I like for an artist to have a mastery over the tools and skills employed to create their art. Clooney’s an actor. So he directs like an actor, allowing the performances to carry the story, but he would be well served if someone told him that a strong low angle shot employed occasionally can have a remarkable dramatic effect.

The tension you mentioned came from the script and the acting, not from Clooney’s direction, and yes that is a flaw.

If you were to follow your line of reasoning to avoid the directors who are overt and exert their full influence over their camera’s frame, then you would exclude Hitchcock, Ford, Kubrick, Nichols, Coppola, Scorsese, and many other exceptional directors. Clooney’s direction is lazy, not simple or straightforward. I want my directors, male or female, to have artistic balls.


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