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The Ides of March


Most political dramas are pretty upbeat. Politics are dirty, they say, but there’s also good in our system. These sorts of movies invariably focus on earnest, heroic underdogs who foil CIA assassinations or bring down corrupt governors. The evil of the system is located in individuals who can be contained and not the system itself.   

The Ides of March is nothing at all like this.

When we meet Stephen (Ryan Gosling), a campaign-press secretary during a very tough presidential primary, he seems like a good American boy. A rising star in the Democratic Party, Stephen knows how to control a room, bark orders, and interpret arcane polling information. More importantly, however, he still has stars in his eyes, still seems to believe his candidate Governor Morris (George Clooney) is the man to lead the country.    

Driven by this belief in his own goodness – and by extension Morris’ goodness – Stephen tells his boss that he’ll “do or say anything if I believe in it, but I have to believe in the cause.” So while he is an expert political pragmatist, crafting sound bytes that play to his audience and understanding how the media will present its information, he is also the innocent idealist who will rescue the system from collapse.

His boss, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has been a political hit man for decades. If Morris is a Dr. Jekyll for liberal idealism in the film – expounding all sorts of leftist fantasies like green energy initiatives and student loan forgiveness – Paul is his rough talking Hyde. Chain smoking his way from one meeting after another, Paul seems to carry the weight of his battles on his back.     

The campaign seems to be in high gear as Morris enters Ohio. Up in the polls and hitting his stride, Morris delivers one home run after another, speaking like a first-term Clinton to college students, hammering his opponent (Senator Pullman) in debates, his popularity rising steadily. The primary appears locked up when Paul meets with Sen. Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), who promises Morris enough delegates to send him over the top in return for a political appointment.

There’s a sort of mechanical precision to politics in The Ides of March . Although their goals are very different and there are many outward dissimilarities, Paul and Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), Pullman's campaign manager, are in many ways interchangeable gears in a machine. Although some variables exist – will Thomas throw his support to Morris or Pullman – most behaviors are predictable, mathematic, and ritualistic.

We accept a certain level of cynical manipulation in politics, but The Ides of March brings us nearer to its absolute nihilism than any movie I can recall. Of course we know that the authentic-looking speeches are, in fact, highly rehearsed. We accept that our electoral process is actually a game between powerful individuals vying for ever more clout. We can accept all of this, but are we ready to embrace the truth that our democratic process is actually a very complex game played by a privileged few?

Stephen believes he is a master of this game, but he only understands its basic rules. When he begins seeing a much younger intern name Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), he calculates the possible outcomes ahead of time and decides the damage would be minimal. The political is personal because people are themselves only political game pieces, but eventually in order to understand its more elemental working, Stephen needs to lose.         

So when he finds himself in a position where he has been out gamed – forced into a position where he has no choice but to forfeit his queen – he’s exposed to a whole new system of mathematics. To regain control, he plans to put his new girlfriend into play in a way that can only be described as reprehensible. The endgame, which pits him against his former master, reveals not just the ugliness of politics (and the personal duplicability of those involved), but also the ways the political system dehumanizes all of us, whether master or slave.

Director George Clooney has created a taut, engrossing political thriller that brings us to places we would probably wish didn’t exist. By juxtaposing the left’s ideal candidate against the stark realities of the political world, he shows us how fabricated even our cynical daydreams are compared to the bitter realities.    

 

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