The Ides of March (review)

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Ryan Gosling in The Ides of March

Politics and Principles and If Ever the Twain Shall Meet

Ooo, the bitter, it stings.

Everything that’s fucked up about American political culture at the moment is hung out in The Ides of March to air like the soiled laundry that it is. How politicians seduce and then inevitably disappoint. How dirty politics is the only politics. How the American public will forgive some terrible sins of politicians while condemning far less ignoble ones. How change for the better seems too fantastical to be seriously contemplated.

The dashed hope of George Clooney — writer, director, and star — is all over The Ides of March: a pointed and pungent disappointment with Barack Obama. Sure, there are more universal themes at play here, about principle and integrity, that could apply to almost any sphere of our honesty- and honor-challenged culture. But there’s almost no way to see this movie as anything other than an artifact of this very moment, right at this precise now, when so many of us who thought we saw a more positive future crystallizing before our eyes in 2008 are now coming to accept that we were duped.

Obama’s name is never mentioned, but he’s here all the same in Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (Clooney: The American, Fantastic Mr. Fox), who is so perfect a progressive figure that he is breathtaking to behold: He refuses to go Jesus-y but deeply respects freedom of religion for everyone. He insists that within a decade of his election, no new car in the United States will have an internal combustion engine. He all but shouts “No blood for oil!” He’s pushing for a green future that will reinvigorate the American economy and the American spirit. Morris is also, then, a crushing blow to any dreams of such a candidate in reality: He’s too good to be true. Why does it take fictional politicians to be this inspiring, this fundamentally American? If the real problems the world faces are so intractable that only fiction can even begin to address them, we’re fucked. But there we are.

Ides — written by Clooney, his frequent partner in crime Grant Heslov (Good Night, and Good Luck.), and Beau Willimon, whose play Farragut North this is based upon — is not Morris’s story, however. On the eve of the Ohio Democratic primary — which will, in the odd calculus of the American electoral system, basically decide who ultimately wins the presidency — senior campaign staffer Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling: Drive, Lars and the Real Girl) is invited by the opposition, led by Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti: The Hangover Part II, Ironclad), to come work for the other candidate. But Stephen — unlike either Duffy or his own boss, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman: Jack Goes Boating, The Invention of Lying) — doesn’t see this race as a game to be won. Stephen is a true believer in Morris: Morris has to win if the United States is to survive, and Stephen may well be right.

This one little meeting will set off a chain of events that could bring down a house of cards that Stephen didn’t even realize was there. Or maybe he knew at least some of it was there, and is playing a long game. We just don’t know for a goodly while.

I won’t say more. This is a thrilling film in so many ways, much of which evolves from our sense that we simply can’t see where it’s going to end up, and how it’s going to get there. We know that Stephen believes he will do anything in a cause he stands behind — and he stands behind Morris completely — but does he really mean that? How far will he take that? How dangerous can a principled man be? Should he sacrifice one principle for another? Can integrity be defined in ways that are contradictory? Should we even take Stephen on his word about what his principles are?

I love this movie because it’s exciting about ideas. The all-around magnificent cast — headlined by Gosling’s spellbinding intensity — is impassioned every moment they’re onscreen. It’s all about stuff that really matters, such as: What does it mean — really mean — to be a principled person? It’s about all of us: what we expect of our leaders and what we don’t, and whether we should think some more about that, and expect something more. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could believe our leaders were as dedicated to their own integrity as Stephen is?

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