The Ides of March isn’t as smart as it thinks it is. I don’t mean that the political drama, its impressive cast, and its director, George Clooney, come off in any way silly. In fact, the screenplay, based on Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North and adapted by Clooney, Willimon, and Grant Heslov, suffers no fool, which is rare for any work with a satirical edge. It features only smart actors playing smart characters doing smart things. This comes as a delight.
I find it impossible to discuss the plot without delving into spoilers, so instead let’s look at the extended cast of characters, which oddly includes no Republicans. The party is mentioned once in passing but has otherwise been removed from the narrative, presumably to avoid claims of liberal bias and media persecution regardless of what the movie might actually have said about the elephant. The fact the two parties can’t even share a polite story anymore proves a depressing statement in itself.
Just the same, everyone gets an opposite number to illustrate the confrontational nature of the American electoral process. For example, Governor Mike Morris, whom Clooney portrays as a liberal’s wet dream, is paired up with Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), who doesn’t share his views but may hold the key to winning the primaries. Morris is sincere enough in his beliefs that he doesn’t want to promise Thompson a place in his cabinet, but he’s compromised before and the higher the stakes, the greater the temptation.
The parallels with President Obama’s administration, whose platform of great change somehow morphed into one of moderate tweaks, are obvious. That they would turn out a coincidence makes the film’s thesis all the more pertinent, though it’s worth noting the writers lay it on a bit thick with Morris’ talking points. They don’t come across as visionary speeches so much as intellectual flights of fancy. In real life, no one would vote for the guy, which strikes me as ironic, given millions would endorse Clooney if he decided to run.
Perhaps the Hollywood star could hire Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as his campaign manager. He and Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who supervises Morris’ competition, represent the old guard, jaded foxes who consider screwing over and getting screwed over a crucial part of the democratic process. At least they take it as well as they dish it out, promoting an odd sense of sportsmanship. With such warped mentors, is it any wonder the younger generation ends up so confused about its values?
This leads us to our protagonist, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), Zara’s ambitious second-in-command who fancies himself a believer, though his seniors see something else in him. His foil is Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), a twenty-year-old intern who thinks of herself as a go-getter. By movie’s end, one makes the ultimate sacrifice to protect an ideal, while the other succumbs to self-preservation. The final shot, meant to echo the first, is all about survival of the fittest. It’ll make your heart sink and your skin crawl simultaneously.
The tragedy is that none of the characters start off particularly corrupt. After all, no one enters the political arena to make the world worst. In every public figure is a slight egotist, sure, but also a driven idealist set on taking responsibilities few of us would even fathom. According to The Ides of March, the problem stems from an electoral process so gruelling that moral compromise becomes a matter of survival. I agree with everything the film has got to say, and therein lies the rub.
I watch political dramas to gain new insight, a better or more articulate understanding of the world’s inner workings. This one conveys its truthful message simply and effectively, but it delivers nothing we don’t already know. At one point, someone complains that a candidate can be forgiven for starting an unnecessary war or leaving the nation in ruins but not for sleeping around. Who created this system? More importantly, who maintains it? The media as represented by Marisa Tomei? The people, who recently picketed against a congressman because of his sexting? The Ides of March never addresses these issues. I feel we should.