“Farragut North,” which premiered off-Broadway in 2008 and takes its name from a Washington D.C. subway station near lobbyist-friendly K Street, has been excellently adapted by Willimon, George Clooney and Grant Heslov as “The Ides of March,” a powerful, intimate, fast-paced look at the schemes and pitfalls of a heated Democratic presidential primary in must-win Ohio. Sleekly directed by Clooney and primarily shot on location in Cincinnati, “The Ides of March,” a surefire Oscar contender for Best Picture and Best Director, centers on hotshot press secretary Stephen Meyers (a terrifically cool, suave and cunning Ryan Gosling) whose world is turned upside down when he begins to question his staunch allegiance to liberal Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (a charismatic, dynamically assertive Clooney). Especially attractive to younger voters, Morris, firmly against the death penalty and America’s dependence on foreign oil, appears to be an ideal, formidable Obama-esque candidate, but Stephen stumbles upon an intriguing indiscretion that places his savior in an extremely damaging light. As betrayal and blackmail surface with impactful twists and turns, Stephen’s compelling tug-of-war with Morris, his fellow staffers, his chief adversary and an inquisitive journalist becomes a gripping thrill ride of secrets and lies. The story doesn’t break new ground, but still addresses its core themes of hubris and loyalty with thought-provoking insight.
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With keen attention to detail, Clooney, spearheading his best cinematic outing since 2008’s “Good Night, and Good Luck,” expertly showcases the grueling yet flavorful pulse of the campaign trail from the hustle and bustle of headquarters to private conversations spoken in the shadows. He also crafts top notch performances from one of the strongest ensembles you’ll find on screen this year. Gosling, a recent knockout in the fantastic indie “Drive” and underrated “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” conveys an appealing inner fire throughout as well as an engaging sensitivity in his magnetic scenes with the luminous Evan Rachel Wood as Molly, a dutiful intern. The always commanding and entertaining Philip Seymour Hoffman, expressing a hint of campaign fatigue in his eyes, is superbly disconcerted as Paul Zara, Morris’ campaign manager whose particularly testy confrontation with Stephen set against the backdrop of the American flag is nothing short of fantastic. Paul Giamatti, in one of his juiciest roles, is splendidly shrewd as rival campaign manager Tom Duffy. Marisa Tomei brings great color and personality to her portrayal of Ida, a skeptical New York Times reporter. Tony Award winner Jeffrey Wright (“Angels in America”) shines in his brief role as an opportunistic senator. The Oscar race for Best Supporting Actor is bound to include Clooney, Giamatti or Hoffman.
Willimon, who assisted Howard Dean during his 2004 presidential campaign, certainly could have adapted the screenplay on his own, which would have provided a more accurate reflection of the conceptual strengths within “Farragut North,” specifically the testosterone-fueled dialogue’s rapid fire zing that feels slightly less vigorous and snappy on screen. Even so, in expanding Willimon’s original framework, Clooney and Heslov’s contributions do not diminish its potency or relevance. In addition to inevitably and astutely reshaping Morris as a major character (he is unseen in “Farragut North”), an emotionally charged subplot involving Molly and a striking new ending that heightens Stephen’s clout and fortitude are very effective. Side comments about an unenthusiastic field of Republican candidates and Democrats proclaiming themselves as underdogs also help the film remain topical while remaining neutral on the whole.
“The Ides of March” is a testament to Dayton’s ability to be a viable launching pad for emerging artists across the country. The Dayton Playhouse recognized, encouraged and rewarded Willimon’s immense talent long before Hollywood took notice. In January, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will surely follow suit.
The Ides of March
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Screenings: Rave Motion Pictures The Greene 14, Rave Motion Pictures Huber Heights 16, Rave Motion Pictures Dayton South 16, Regal Hollywood 20 at Fairfield Commons