Clooney’s ‘Ides of March’ is boiled down essence as high drama

When George Clooney's “The Ides of March” screened for press at Venice, the reception was somewhat chilly. Bowing a film about political corruption to European audiences is always going to be a dicey play. And maybe it would have been wiser to choose a different venue for the reveal. I don't make these decisions.

But then the film played Toronto and similarly “meh” reactions were floating around. One critic went so far as to call it a “watered down version of 'Primary Colors.'” And so, at the time, I put up a post corralling some of these reviews and one-offs and titled it “Naiveté you can believe in,” because the issue simply seemed to be that treating political corruption as profound insight was just silly in this day and age.

Here's the thing, though. After seeing the film last night, I feel strongly that “The Ides of March” isn't acting as if its pulling back a veil. It's handling, quite matter-of-factly, political corruption and scandal and the back-bitery of the Washington game as simple and plain harsh truth. I didn't read any of this to be presented as epiphany in the slightest, and indeed, I find it to be one of the most refined films of the year.

What the film does is navigate these waters with a Shakespearean accent. It's obviously no coincidence the original play — “Farragut North” — was re-titled to fall in line with the date of Julius Caesar's betrayal, elevated to high drama in the Bard's play. (Or was it Edward de Vere's play? Wait, I'm mixing my Sony movies here.) And that's exactly what Clooney does with the film. He cooks it into a slim, lean piece of high drama in which every single actor — across the board — is firing on all cylinders.

And on that, I'm a little surprised Ryan Gosling isn't getting his proper due here. I was very impressed by what he was doing in the film, playing a young but weathered, smart-talking media strategist to Clooney's noble and apparently squeaky clean liberal presidential candidate. Combined with a completely different, but equally skilled performance in Nicolas Winding Refn's “Drive,” I'd say Gosling is having a stellar year and, truly, he deserves some awards recognition on both fronts.

Philip Seymour Hoffman has become so good at what he does we all just take it for granted. On a podcast from Telluride, Guy quipped, “We've seen him do this before.” Well, I kind of think that's his genius. I don't think he's failed to give a fully present and wholly embodied portrayal in his entire career. We've just come to expect excellence of him, and that's what he dishes out here.

Evan Rachel Wood is dynamite in a role that could be fodder for a supporting actress push, and Marisa Tomei — man, I wish she had more scenes because she nailed the role of a sweet-talking evil wench journalist brilliantly. And Clooney, also having a stand-out year, really squeezes every moment he's on screen for all it's worth.

But it's Clooney's work as director that was particularly impressive. He has a shrewd directorial mind, really unsung in some ways. He has a keen eye for visually telling his story (Phedon Papamichael's cinematography finds so many brilliant images) and he has an impeccable sense of pace.

On that, Stephen Mirrione's film editing is graceful but crisp, particularly stand-out in an opening sequence that really settles you into the tone. And I think, of all the scores he has in play this year, Alexandre Desplat has his best shot at Oscar recognition for his jazzy, smooth and at times operatic work here.

Quite simply put, “The Ides of March” is one of the year's best films. It's not watered-down anything. It's distilled everything. And it gets in and out without stooping to grandiose preaching. Tight as a drum, I'd call this the best film in Sony's impressive fall stable.

And we haven't even gotten to “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” yet.