(Mild spoilers. Obviously)
As writers, we talk a lot about “show, don’t tell”. Don’t have a character talk about how impulsive and violent the villain is – show him breaking the waitress’ arm because she spilled his coffee. Don’t have the hero’s wife tell her friends how considerate he is – show him coming home with her favourite takeout because he knew she was working late. With character, as with everything else on screen, actions speak louder than words.
But, as The Ides Of March proves, sometimes you don’t even have to show us the actions.
Towards the end of the story, young political consultant Steven (Ryan Gosling) offers would-be Presidential candidate Governor Morris (George Clooney, who also directs) a deal that will win him the nomination, but will work out badly for his loyal senior consultant Paul (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). In a dramatic choice that’s used several times in the movie, director Clooney cuts away from the scene without giving us Morris’ response.
We find Paul in a local barber’s, having his hair cut. As he exits, he finds a black limo pulled up in the grubby alley a few yards up the street. The rear window descends. It’s Morris. Carefully extinguishing his cigarette, Paul gets in.
And the camera, across the street, holds on a wide view of the alley and the parked car for what seems like forever. No audio from inside the car, no way to tell what’s going on inside, what Morris is saying or what decision he’s made. Until Paul gets out and is left standing there, shell-shocked, as the limo pulls away.
We know Morris has taken the option that’s best for him and worst for Paul. But we were neither told nor shown that. So how do we know?
Of course, Hoffman’s understated performance as he exits the car is the major indicator of what’s happened – but there are other narrative elements running right from the beginning of the scene, clues that set the tone and support the actors’ performances.
After an entire movie set in hotel rooms, TV studios and campaign offices, we’re suddenly on an ordinary street, then in a dirty alley. Real life has begun to intrude on the political bubble, and unconsciously we feel the shift, the threat.
Add in the old-fashioned barbers – which has a place in the mob movie, sometimes as a location for assassination – and the tension carried over from Morris’ unresolved dilemma in the previous scene, and audience anticipation is sky-high even before we see that sinister black limo. This is not going to end well.
Damn fine writing from Grant Heslov & Clooney (again! Did he make the tea as well?), working with Beau Willimon’s stage play. Not only do you not have to tell – if you create the right level of anticipation, it seems you don’t even have to show.