“It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.”
The American political thriller is one genre that isn’t going away any time soon. Machinations and plots in the highest echelons of power in the most powerful nation on the planet have an enduring appeal. These films are about all the deadly sins, and how the political landscape has evolved to both embrace and hide them from the public eye. Corruption in all senses of the term. Most of all, they are about secrets, and the terrible things that happen when they come to light.
George Clooney’s fourth film as director tackles all these themes with aplomb. He’s come up with a neat trick with all his movies, casting himself in a major role, but giving the starring role to a much better actor. A one-two punch of bankability and raw talent. Ryan Gosling is front and centre in this film, and it’s all the better for his bruised and vulnerable performance.
He plays Stephen Myers, a talented campaign manager for a charismatic governor looking at the Democratic nod in the run-up to a Presidential election. He’s respected, and helping to run a show that seems to be on course to victory. Above all, Stephen’s a believer, starry-eyed with the knowledge that this guy is The One. The Ides Of March tells us how that campaign and Stephen’s career and faith are shaken to the core.
It’s a story set in autumnal hues and filthy Iowa weather, a cold tale for a cold season. Everyone, it transpires, has secrets, apart from Stephen. In the course of the film he gathers his own, and figures out their power.
Unlike a lot of political dramas coming out of the States, there’s no violence, no hidden assassin, no thugs in a back alley waiting with a beating and a warning. It’s no less exciting for the lack of physical brutality – there’s plenty of cruelty on display. As with most films in this genre, everyone walks away a little dirtier, a little less honest.
It’s Stephen’s transformation that powers The Ides Of March along. As in Drive, Ryan Gosling gives us a character that is radically different at the end of the film from the beginning. If you were to be uncharitable, you could call him an innocent spurned, but I think the creature he becomes was in him all along. Like The Driver, he manages to keep his darker impulses in check until the true nature of the business of politics rears up in front of him. Once his loyalty is questioned and betrayed, he shows that he’s more than willing to play dirty.
The Ides Of March grabs you by the collar from the start and doesn’t let go until the final, devastating close-up on the transformed Stephen Myers. A treatise on Machiavellian notions of power, corruption, secrets and lies. A sharp-dressed political thriller with a cold, keen edge.