George Clooney, Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Ehle and Talia Akiva, in Ides of March (AP)
In the ultimate Hollywood cliché, what George Clooney really wants to do is direct. Speaking in Toronto during TIFF, Clooney said his heart is in directing - acting is just the gig he does to keep bread on the table.
Which makes The Ides of March, Clooney's fourth film as a director, all the more interesting. The movie about a conflicted press secretary caught in the midst of the Democratic primaries stars Clooney as the Democrat's great hope. He's Mike Morris, a progressive atheist who wants to make internal combustion engines illegal. While his political policies seem about as realistic as Real Steel, much of the fictional candidate's firepower comes from Clooney's real father. Nick Clooney ran for Congress in 2004 and was trounced in part by opponents who used George Clooney's image as a Hollywood elite to tarnish his father.
Co-written with his partner Grant Heslov and based on a play by Beau Willimon, Ides draws on Papa Clooney's war stories, his gripes and the pressure to compromise, with a story of a candidate who attempts to take the high road. Although Clooney does appear as the salt-and-pepper-haired saviour, Morris is a supporting role. This is about the men behind the man; an often paranoid world filled with Styrofoam coffee cups, buzzing Blackberries and phone banks. The man marshaling Morris' press campaign is Stephen Myers, a political whiz kid who's finally found a candidate worth fighting for. Myers is played by Ryan Gosling in a familiar mold. He's the same charmer we spied in Blue Valentine, with an upgraded wardrobe and an Ivy-League education.
There's a great scene near the beginning that introduces the two characters. Myers arrives to approve the setup of one of the leaders debates. He checks the podium, the lights and the audio. We see Myers casually running through Morris' sound bites. Then, we jump ahead to the actual debate, Morris steps up to the podium, gives the Clooney signature smirk and knocks it out of the park.
All is going well for young Myers until two fateful mistakes: a rendezvous with a beguiling intern (Evan Rachel Wood) and accepting a phone call from Tom Duffy, the win-at-all costs campaign manager for Morris' opponent. Paul Giamatti plays Duffy as the Democrats' Machiavellian mastermind who is ready "get down in the mud with the f-ing elephants" to win.
And the only thing that's better than having the rumpled Paul Giamatti in a film? Having the equally rumpled Philip Seymour Hoffman in the same film. Hoffman plays Giamatti's opposite number, the right-hand man for Morris who prides loyalty above all. Hoffman fans hungry for more after his strong but short appearance in Moneyball have a little more to chew on here, with Hoffman making a meal of the political doublespeak.
There's already a lot of Oscar buzz around The Ides of March. But Clooney says he doesn't remember awards, he remembers movies. That's his goal, to create films that people are still talking about 20 years from now. Ask him about his favourite films and he cites the politically provocative films of the late '60s and '70s. Dr. Strangelove. Network. Clooney even says it was an old book on directing by Sidney Lumet that helped him get started.
One of Hollywood's favourite leading men, Clooney wants to use his star power to make movies that shake people up. Which is why it's disappointing that in the final act of Ides the story shrinks in on itself. Without spoiling anything, the tension is torqued, dirty deeds are done and the personal becomes political. Perhaps politics is always personal, but from an actor who reveres the activist cinema of his youth, Ides seems like a missed opportunity. Instead of a "Mad as Hell" moment we get a morality play.
RATING: Four drooping American flags out of five.
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Pictured above: Ryan Gosling in Ides of March. (AP)