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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Drive: The Mystery of Ryan Gosling

Drive opens with a getaway driver waiting for a couple of thieves to complete their heist according to his strict standards—in an out in five minutes or he’s gone. This leads to a high-speed chase that shows why he was hired: he drives very fast, very accurately, and he doesn’t rattle. Drive reminds you of movies like Steve McQueen’s Bullitt and James Caan’s Thief, movies about edgy loners who are more comfortable in their cars than they are anywhere else.

The movie also related to Ryan O’Neal’s Drive, which is also about a getaway driver. Remember that great scene in the parking garage? The gangster who wants to hire him says, “How do we know you’re that good?” O’Neal replies, “Get in” and gives them a high-speed turn around the crowded parking garage, including creasing the sides of the Mercedes just enough to prevent the doors from opening and the gangsters from getting out easily. That isn’t a scene from this movie, but the same loner-with-a-code is at its heart.

Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan play their characters like the lovers in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal–yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair! (lines 17–20)

The resulting tension is, as they say, palpable. (Is that a first–a movie review that quotes Keats?) If Blue Valentine was about the decay of love, Drive is about love derailed, about everything leading up to, but not quite including, love. Where Blue Valentine had steamy sex scenes, Drive has no more than one passionate but ambiguous kiss. One of the interesting features of this movie is the way it plays with this serious and little-addressed theme in the context of a genre movie.

Despite his preppy good looks, Gosling, a world-class brooder, is a young Robert Mitchum. And Mulligan, despite her conventional prettiness, has an absorbing intensity that’s hard to turn away from. They’re well-matched in intensity and in the style of their acting. With acting this restrained, the smallest gestures take on great significance. Gosling’s character, who is nameless, always keeps a toothpick in the corner of his mouth. When he meets a young boy, the son of Mulligan’s character, he offers him a toothpick of his own. It’s a small thing, a passing gesture, but it shows the character opening up to another, maybe to a younger version of himself, which might explain why a bond forms between him and the woman and her child. Later, another character will give the child something that conveys a much different message, an ending rather than a beginning. Drive has the requisite number of fights, gunplay, and explosions for edgy film noir, but it’s in the small details that the movie shines.

When Mulligan’s husband comes home from prison, we’re expecting a strutting thug, the wrong man for this quiet, sensitive woman. And when he shows up, at first he seems to fit the stereotype. Oscar Isaac plays him as tough and swaggering, but with a surprising edge of vulnerability. When he raises his glass to toast his wife and his friends on his return from prison, he admits, “It was a shameful thing that I did.” And though jealousy plays a role in how he deals with Gosling’s character, more than that binds them together and drives them part.

I’m a big fan of Albert Brooks, as a comic actor and as a writer (see and re-see Lost in America), and I was surprised to find him playing one of the heavies in this movie. But with the first words out of his mouth, I was completely won over by the character. “Won over” may be the wrong phrase. I believed in the reality of this genial and dangerous man.

In fact, all the actors do well. Ron Pearlman is excellent as Albert Brooks’s partner in crime. And Bryan Cranston does a great job as Gosling’s amped-up, jittery, but mostly well-meaning employer. Gosling’s character is a man of mystery who seems to have formed few attachments in his lifetime. So when he makes one, it has to count. A man of principle, when things go bad, he has to try to set things right. But the forces of darkness are powerful. It reminds you of the T-shirt that reads, “Where am I going? And what am I doing in this hand-basket?”

Someone once said that the best male actors convey an element of danger in the characters they play. To that I’d add an element of mystery. You don’t know what they might do next, and therefore you can’t stop watching them. Actors like Mitchum, DeNiro, and Malkovich look like they’re in the mood for mayhem, no matter what they’re in. Like James Dean, Gosling’s good looks are disarming. He might cut you or cure you: it could go either way. The dangerous element in his characters is deep inside, and he seems to nurture it like an eternal flame. When it leaps out, stand back.

We haven’t seen a movie this gritty-good since the late great Sidney Lumet’s last movie, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

More, please.