The Ides Have It

What Hollywood does well is melodrama. And when it’s at its best, it’s able to make melodrama bump up against real drama, which is what happens in The Ides of March. Somehow, without car chases, gunfights, or explosions, the movie’s makers have been able to ratchet up the suspense and thrills. It might have been called D.C. Confidential for all the movie’s secrets and surprises.

At the center is the character played by Ryan Gosling, Stephen Meyer (most often referred to as “Stevie”), a talented young campaign strategist who’s well-liked even by his enemies, a man who believes that “nothing bad happens when you’re doing the right thing.” That philosophy—and the man himself—will be tested.

The story’s inciting incident—if you want to get all dramaturgical about it—is a conversation. More specifically, it’s a decision regarding that conversation that threatens to send everyone and everything off the rails.

George Clooney, who has come into his own as a director (the kind, like Clint Eastwood, who knows how to make the camera unobtrusive), has surrounded himself with solid secondary characters. Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Wood are especially fine. Giamatti and Hoffman are the old pros of the campaign trail, guys with guts (actual guts) who do what needs to be done, who have pared down their ideals to a bare minimum needed for survival and self-respect. Tomei is strong as the reporter who alternatively befriends and berates her sources. And Wood has some great meet-cute moments as her character gets to know Gosling’s, though from the beginning you think there’s more to her than meets the eye, which is a tribute to her acting chops. Remember that confrontation scene she played as Mickey Rourke’s daughter in The Wrestler, the way it lifted off the screen, took on a life of its own? Great stuff.

Clooney himself does a fine job playing liberal democratic governor Mike Morris, a man who’s smart, sincere, and maybe just a little too impressed with himself for his own good, the kind of guy who can barely keep from smiling and giving a shiver of self-satisfaction over his own wonderfulness.

Gosling carries the movie in the sense that his arc is the one we follow with the most interest. His “Stevie” is young and talented but untried. Gosling, who often plays characters filled with reticence, plays this one with striding self-confidence (even his voice is lower), a man who knows he’s headed for great things. Heck, what could go wrong? Only everything.

Here’s a good example of Ryan Gosling’s talent as an actor. In both Drive and The Ides of March, there’s at least one wordless shot of Gosling in profile while he’s driving. Each shot is remarkably parallel to the other. In Drive the character is afraid he’s about to lose the only thing that has meaning in his life—his budding romance. In Ides his career and his entire philosophy of life hang in the balance. And yet, despite the similar circumstances, Gosling’s intensity hums at a different emotional frequency for each. Other factors might have an effect on these shots: framing, lighting, even makeup, and certainly the impact of the story-so-far exerting pressure on the moment and on the audience. But I think the primary difference is what the actor brought to each moment—the different histories of his characters, the different dangers, the different sense of the future—and all of it conveyed wordlessly. They’re fine distinctions, yes, but great performances are made of small distinctions like this.

The Ides of March, like the best political thrillers, shows the seamy side of politics. I know, I know, I hear you asking, “Is there any other side?” But Clooney and his team do make you feel you’re watching the death of a dream. Ides is not about the politics of Democrats or Republicans. It’s about the politics of people, about what some southern smarty-pants once called “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

P.S. The Sleeper was on the edge of her seat throughout, muttering “Et tu, brute.”

P.P.S. Why is it that the talkers always make a point of sitting behind me? This time, it was a group of four friends, one of whom kept telling the others what she thought would happen next. And what’s the etiquette? A polite throat-clearing? An air horn? A large sock filled with manure? I always figure if I say anything, they’ll make it seem as though I’m the one making a disturbance. I’d welcome your suggestions.

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Moneyball Hits One Out of the Park

There are three kinds of baseball movies: fantasies like Field of Dreams and The Natural, farces like Bull Durham and Major League, and tear-jerkers like Bang the Drum Slowly and The Pride of the Yankees. I’ve probably missed a few categories. For a complete list of every baseball movie ever made, visit the page maintained by the Boston Amateur Baseball Network.

The point I’m trying to make is that Moneyball should not work. It’s not a fantasy, a farce, or a tear-jerker. In fact, I don’t think it would fit in any category of baseball movie out there. It’s a baseball movie that doesn’t really show all that much baseball, which is really only the occasion for the movie’s true subject—statistics. Billy Beane, the central character, helped usher in the modern strategy of building a baseball team not with star players who can hit homers but with middle-of-the-road players who statistically have the best chance of getting on base.

Sports movies generally have at least one memorable monologue. Think of Kevin Costner’s great one in Bull Durham. Think of the eulogy for the lost players in Remember the Titans. And of course of Gary Cooper’s farewell speech in Pride of the Yankees. The closest Moneyball gets to such a speech is when Pitt addresses his team: “You don’t look like a winning team, but you are one. Now go out there and play like
one.” That’s it, the whole speech.

Add to this the problem that it’s a one-character movie. Yes, there are other characters if by “other characters” you mean actors in costume who interact to some degree with the main character.  But if by “character” you mean people who struggle and change over the course of the story, well, I’m not sure even the main character is a real character.

Brad Pitt, as real-life Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane, is convinced through much of the movie that the statistical approach to building a team will work, and every other character, except for the young statistician he hires, believes otherwise. It takes a while for his strategy to prove to be correct, but he never loses faith. American movies are about struggle, about desire, about overcoming the odds. Without those things, there’s only waiting. But somehow Pitt makes waiting watchable.

Even the character’s daughter, played winningly by Kerris Dorsey, goes from loving her dad to, well, loving her dad. Nothing really shakes that relationship, though she worries for a fleeting moment that he might lose his job.

In other words, Moneyball  has none of the bells and whistles of a typical sports movie.

And what a relief.

It’s a low-key movie, a movie of long takes (by the standards of American movies), a
movie that takes the time to show a person thinking. In fact, that’s the primary action of the movie—thinking—Beane and his young statistician figuring out how to build the team, trying to convince others, and then putting the team together and crossing their fingers.

What makes Moneyball work is the acting. Brad Pitt, who’s always interesting to watch, has come into his own in this movie. He plays a man of confidence who’s not entirely sure of himself, a man who hears out his biggest detractor in the hope of persuading him to change his mind. Pitt is compelling. You can’t take your eyes off him. He moves through space like a boxer who’s seen more than his share of fights but who still loves the game.

Jonah Hill, as the young statistician, shows a side I never knew he had. His character is nuanced, tentative, a man with a secret passion who’s been unable to share it until the right person comes along who can appreciate it.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the world-weary seen-it-all coach with just the right touch of been-there-done-that. I only wished we could see more of him. His character seems to drop out of sight toward the end of the movie.

The great Robin Wright plays Pitt’s ex-wife with just the right touch of leftover affection for her former husband. She makes a point of congratulating him at one point, not because she wants to get back together but because it’s the decent thing to do. But like Hoffman, she, too, is so good that we want to see more of her than the movie provides.

The secondary characters in the movie are more like backdrop. Nowhere is this more
vivid than in the use of the great icon of cantankerosity Jack McGee, who’s little more than a featured extra in the boardroom scenes. Of the eight or so actors in these scenes, none of the characters’ names matter. They share one attitude—that Beane’s idea will never work. They’re a Greek chorus of negativity instead of individual characters. And it’s a shame to see such talent wasted.

The same producers who made Moneyball made The Social Network¸ another movie about a subject that shouldn’t be as compelling as it is—the creation of a software
program—and another movie that wins us over largely because of its acting and
directing.

Before it was released, Moneyball hit a snag when its studio worried about, among other things, whether spending fifty million on a movie about statistics would win over audiences. According to Box Office Mojo, the movie’s take so far stands as thirty-eight million at only ten days out.

It’s not a movie that will carry you away on a wave of sentiment or make you laugh
your butt off, but it’s probably the best acted major studio movie that we’ve seen in a long time, and it proves screenwriter William Goldman’s immortal words about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”