It’s no secret that I think Ryan Gosling is an awful actor. I speak about it with about as much frequency as I speak about my love for Nicolas Cage, a fact which probably makes those who swoon for Gosling or knee-jerk balk at Cage take my reviews with more than a few grains of salt. I needn’t go into the particulars again about Gosling’s failings, since you can find my thoughts on this elsewhere, but I do believe it is important to note because this predisposition toward the actor does color my experience with his films, to a certain extent… although perhaps not in the way that you’d expect.
Being a fan of Nicolas Cage does not blind me to the fact that he’s released more than a few awful films in the past several years. The title that comes to mind most readily for me is Season of the Witch, although I’m not above saying that you could exchange that for a number of titles. And that’s the point I’m trying to make: that although I am a Cage apologist, I can admit that he’s made some bad movies. My love for Cage does not cause me to over-rate those movies (generally), but instead to feel a crushing disappointment with each flop because I know the man is capable of so much better work. On the other side of this coin, my distaste for Gosling has not prevented me from seeing nearly a dozen of his films. With each new title, I cross my fingers that the man has learned between gigs how to act, at least a little. He has managed to surprise me a few times already (The Believer, Lars and the Real Girl) – and when the man doesn’t totally suck the energy out of the movie he’s quote-unquote “starring” in, that’s exactly what it is: a surprise.
All of which is lead-in to say that The Ides of March is a pleasant surprise. It’s a political thriller insomuch as politics are the stage for the drama to play out, with Gosling playing celebrated spin-meister Stephen Meyers, on the campaign trail with Democratic presidential hopeful Mike Morris (George Clooney). Early in the film, the campaign manager for another Democratic challenger seeks to woo Meyers onto their team, but our protagonist makes his position clear: he’s willing to get down and dirty in the political mud, but only for something that he believes in strongly. This sets up the first domino in the sure-to-come-crashing chain, and boldly states the aims of the film. This isn’t a film about trickery and deceit, not about back-room deals and shifting alliances. Instead, we are destined to watch an alteration in what this character believes in. If you suspect it’s something as simple as “Mike Morris’ position on immigration reform rubs me the wrong way”, you couldn’t be more off target. This shift is fundamental, foundational. What Stephen Meyers learns that he believes in, more than anything, is the game itself.
I don’t think I’m spoiling the film for you by saying that. The movie doesn’t state its themes aloud, even after it stated its initial conceit so candidly, preferring to let Meyers’ gradual sink into the murky waters of interpersonal politics speak for themselves. This works to the film’s advantage – echoing the approach of several other titles from 2011 such as Moneyball and Clooney’s own The Descendants – by allowing the events of the movie to be hard-hitting without hitting the audience over the head with them. Gosling’s character changes without the need for him to yell about it. The tone is exemplified by the last scene in the film, which has the character simply stare forward while his candidate is announced. It works with the actor’s natural tendency to show little to no emotion because at this point in the game, emotion has been removed entirely from the equation. (As an aside, I’ve noticed that when films incorporate a deadness/emotionlessness in the characters that Gosling plays are when they work best… see also Half Nelson, Blue Valentine, Driver, etc.)
How he gets from Point A to Point B in the film is muddy, and a bit contrived, which is why I prefer to focus on the larger picture rather than get absorbed in the details. This is consistent with Meyers’ own newfound center: it’s not about the particulars of the candidate’s platform, but instead about being in control. So I could talk about the effect that an intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) has on our man, or about the significance of the friendship/dependency/animosity that he shares with a national news reporter (Marisa Tomei). But I think the change in the character’s behavior is much more moderate than that, so that even when he does react intensely to a situation, that’s not the defining moment. The defining moment is between moments, the clicking gears in Meyers’ head resetting his previous assessments regarding what matters most. Being deceived by his candidate is an element that causes this changing mindset, but there is no straw for this camel’s back.
This is what I appreciate most, then. In spite of some big dilemmas for the character to overcome, it feels to me like the climax is progressive, not spurred by one major conflict. I’ve forgotten many of the details now, two weeks later, but retain in my mind a sense that there was something special about the film in the cool way it handles the situation… not as a political statement, not as a dense thriller, but instead as a far simpler drama focusing on vague concepts like “loyalty” and “respect”. The Ides of March is likely not a film for the ages, but it has its moment.