Link to a formal review at the end here.
One thing I mention in that review is Clooney’s use of dark/light to express what his characters are feeling. I feel like this is a bit of a lost art-form in American mainstream (or at least semi-mainstream) cinema. Some of the big ones do a great job of it – the Coens, Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, for example, but as a whole the use of light has become more a straight stylistic concern (ahem, Zack Snyder) than anything meaningful.
In that sense it’s pretty nice to see Clooney take this idea to a few extremes in The Ides of March. There are two scenes in particular that I want to look at. Both are pretty short:
The first scene features Ryan Gosling (playing Stephen Myers) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (playing Paul Zara) in wide-shot. Both are silhouetted to the point that they almost look like graphic images (and, as I mention briefly in the review, something out of a pure-paranoia-Pakula-picture like Winter Kills or The Parallax View). Behind them is a giant American flag. Paul and Stephen are pushed to the bottom of the frame so that the flag overwhelms them and the frame. From a composition and lighting perspective this is somewhat obvious given the context: the men are arguing about dirty politics while in the “shadow” of what should be the very symbol of true democracy. By keeping the flag brightly and uniformly lit and throwing the men into shadow Clooney reinforces the idea that he espouses throughout the entire picture – that there are two distinct types of politics at play when it comes to any major seat in this country. There is what is obvious, stated, and presented to the public (the flag) and then there is what is below the surface, unsaid, and kept in the shadows (the men). He’s not really saying anything new, but his insistence on an overwhelming relationship between form and content, as epitomized here, is what makes the film particularly successful.
The second scene features Stephen only. There’s a small SPOILER here. It’s the end of the film and Stephen has undergone a full transition from wide-eyed, innocent and idealistic campaigner to hard-eyed, grizzled, and backstabbing campaigner in only a matter of days. As he walks into an auditorium from outside for an interview Clooney’s shot of choice is the head-on steadicam, framing Stephen in medium close-up. Stephen starts outside (brightly lit), walks inside and through the doorway (in shadow), then under a ceiling light (lit), then through a corridor (dark)…and this change continues until he takes his seat pre-interview. Again, simple but effective. Everything’s hit the fan. The alternating light/dark/light/dark are representative of Stephen’s film-long transformation as much as his in-the-moment mindset.
I don’t know that I would make an argument that The Ides of March is ground-breaking in this, or in any other ways. But there is one, universal thing that it does throughout: it picks it’s game plan and sticks to it to dramatic, suspenseful results.