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Friday, February 17, 2012

The most common criticism of George Clooney's The Ides of March was that it didn't reveal any new or surprising truths about the dirty world of politics. I was guilty of such criticism, saying in my original review that Clooney's thesis is not a new one, and though a second viewing still didn't uncover anything new, the film is too good to be written off. Why this film was sacrificed by critics for being a throwback, slow-burn thriller is something I'll never understand (especially considering the adulation thrown at the film I discuss below, which does a lot of similar things, albeit in a vastly different fashion). So consider this my case for why The Ides of March is a great film. Not a good one, a great one—a really fucking great one.

When one speaks of dirty politics, the images that come to mind are sleazy rich guys throwing money around to get what they want. I really couldn't fathom what happens in The Ides of March. Here we have two so-called "principled" men essentially playing chicken with another man's career. And it's the best among all of them that arguably suffers the most. No, Ryan Gosling's Stephen Meyers doesn't lose his job; He actually ends up in a better position professionally than anyone else around him. But he gives up the quaint idea that character matters. He's forced to admit that moralism has no place in his business, and he takes the first step on a road that will lead him to a life not unlike those who just screwed him royally. That's what you call stakes. The Ides of March is nothing (By the way, does anyone in film say the word "nothing" better than Phillip Seymour Hoffman?) if it doesn't present its characters' dilemmas as matters of monumental importance. Its ability to do that (in expert fashion) was deservedly rewarded with a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination.

Though the film is driven primarily with plot and atmosphere, there's a lot going on behind the scenes that—like Moneyball—I wish I picked up on the first time around. Readers of In Contention will likely have seen this spectacular shot singled out as one of the best of the year. It's undoubtably one of my favorites, as well. The entire film has an aesthetic that's simultaneously slick and grimy—not unlike the individuals populating this world. I was also impressed by the film editing, which is never showy, but allows for maximum suspense and just enough character development from the film's very large ensemble.

The Ides of March is, I suspect, an immensely watchable movie. On first watch, I appreciated the movie. The second watch enhanced that greatly, which begs the question: Why did the movie disappoint so many? Expectations that Clooney would reinvent the wheel undoubtably existed, but I don't think that's the whole story. More to the point is the fact that the film came out a week after 50/50, two weeks after Moneyball, three weeks after Drive, and four weeks after Contagion. That's a tough group to compete with, and perhaps we were just spoiled with a glut of great fall movies. Whatever the case, I hope you all decide to give it another shot. It's a very worthy entry to that strong group of movies.

FIRST TAKE: A weak 3.5 stars
NEW TAKE: Same stars, but they're much stronger

Though it might not seem like Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive has a lot in common with The Ides of March on the surface, I think they have a similar genetic makeup. Of course, they both star Ryan Gosling in terrific turns (though I'm on the record for preferring his work in Drive). But they also harken back to thrillers of old—The Ides of March to paranoid Cold War flicks and Drive to crazy eighties revenge pictures. Death Wish, of course, comes to mind, as do some of Michael Mann's films (primarily Collateral and Heat). And their heroes have something crucial in common—circumstances force them to act outside the comfy confines of their moral code, though one could argue The Driver doesn't have one (something I'd disagree with).

All that said, the film's similarities more or less end there. While the two films' respective tones start out similarly, they head off in drastically different directions once they reach their halfway points. Another difference is my ultimate appreciation for both films after a second watch. While The Ides of March's strengths shone through, I saw more problems with Drive than I initially remembered. It wasn't so much that I found new flaws, but rather the ones that jumped out at me last September seemed even more problematic now.

The first and biggest problem for me is the violence. I'm admittedly a little squeamish, but I can deal with blood, guts, and killing if it serves a story. In Drive, it feels like Winding Refn is reveling in it. There's such a thing as "too much," and I think Drive crosses the line into that territory when it comes to brutality.

My other big gripe is that there are times when the film really drags. I'm not talking about The Driver and Irene's long, drawn-out "conversations"—I think those are great character-building moments. But after the halfway point, there are a handful of scenes that feel extraneous and/or overlong. We get too much Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks (though I dig both performances, especially the latter's), and the ending is a little abrupt for my taste.

I still really appreciate Drive—it's easily one of the best photographed films of last year—but certainly not as much as most. And what I'm ultimately getting at is that while I admire it, I really don't think I like it. Now that I've given it another shot, I'm not sure I ever want to see it again, which sours me even more on the film overall. Still, count me in for Winding Refn's next film. Just because this one didn't wow me doesn't mean he's not a very capable filmmaker.

FIRST TAKE: 3.5 stars
NEW TAKE: A very strong 3 stars


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