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The Ides of March (2011)
BEWARE THE SPOILERS OF OCTOBER
“The Candidate,” the seminal political movie of the 1970s, is about the corruption of a true believer, the titular candidate, Bill McKay (Robert Redford), who goes from idealistic grassroots activist to U.S. Senator-elect mouthing the ominous words, “What do we do now?,” as if he no longer has a mind of his own.
Half an hour into “The Ides of March,” the seminal political movie of 2011, I thought writer-director George Clooney was turning this idea on its head. His presidential candidate, Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney), holds firm to his principles, refusing to accept a quid-pro-quo agreement with Sen. Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), whose leftover delegates from his own failed campaign would give Morris the nomination, even as his campaign managers, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) urge it.
“I said I wasn’t going to make those kinds of deals,” he says to his men.
But “Ides of March” is also about the corruption of a true believer. This time, though, the true believer is the idealistic campaign manager rather than the candidate.
The Campaign Manager
Stephen Meyers, Gosling’s character, believes in Morris. “He’s the only one who’s actually going to make a difference in people’s lives,” he tells New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei).
Stephen is also smart. The opposition campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) sees his smarts, wants it for his guy, and invites Stephen to a sit-down. Flattered, Stephen shows up, but nothing comes of it. Except everything. Because Stephen tells Paul, and Paul tells The New York Times (Ida) so he can fire Stephen for being disloyal enough to accept the sit-down in the first place. Tom Duffy knew this. He foresaw it all. He calls it a win-win. “The moment you sat down in that chair,” he tells him later, “I won.”
Worse, now Duffy doesn’t even want him. He’s damaged goods. Stephen was this close to the White House, with a candidate he believed in, and now it’s all gone.
Except there’s a competing storyline. A pretty intern (Evan Rachel Wood), 20, flirts with Stephen, 30. She talks campaign, always with a frisson of sex underneath, and teases him about his exalted status as assistant campaign manager versus hers as lowly intern. After handing out cellphones to the staff, for example, he asks for her phone number. She tells him it’s already programmed into his phone.
She: Under Mary.
He: I know your name is Mary.
She: My name is Molly.
Molly is a great character and Wood inhabits her. (Is anyone talking best supporting actress nom yet?) She’s smart, sexy and forward. Gosling’s Stephen is smart, sexy and reserved. Their scenes together pop.
On their second night together, his cellphone rings at 2:30 a.m. but the caller hangs up. Only then does he realize it was her cellphone. He thinks about it (“Who would be calling at 2:30 a.m.?”), then teases her about it. He’s not really jealous. He’s smiling and joking around, and, over her protests, calls the dude back. Then he freezes.
It’s Gov. Morris. Worse, she’s pregnant.
Initially I thought it a bad idea. “Really?” I thought. “The Democratic candidate is sleeping with the intern? Can’t we get past that story?”
At the same time, it’s intriguing in this way: What will Stephen do with this information? His man is now tarnished. Will he, the true believer, abandon him? Go over to the other side? Nope. He plays the good soldier. He gets the money for the abortion, drives Molly to the clinic, then leaves her there for a pow-wow with Paul.
Who fires him for the sit-down with Tom Duffy.
“OK,” I thought. “Now what will he do with the information?”
Step by step, the movie keeps getting more interesting. Morris, after all, isn’t the only too-good-to-be-believed character in the movie. Stephen is, too. He’s the guy who’s doing the thing for the right reasons. We assume that’s who he is. But that’s not who he is. He wants to believe in his guy but he also doesn’t want to go back to a consulting firm on K Street. So after driving around all day—and forgetting or not caring enough about Molly at the abortion clinic—he shows up at Sen. Pullman’s headquarters, where Duffy lets him know he’d been played and refuses to take him on.
Think about it. You're powerless and jobless, and yet you have access to the most powerful information in the world. So how do you turn that information into power and access?
We get a standoff. Stephen doesn’t want to reveal the info without the job, and Duffy doesn’t want to give him the job without the info. In the end, Duffy assumes he’s bluffing and walks away. He leaves on the table the very information that would’ve put his man in the White House.
Stephen then goes to Molly’s hotel room but the police are already there. Because she’s dead. Mixture of alcohol and drugs. Accident? Suicide? He sees her cellphone on the bed, with its record of phone calls from Gov. Morris. Does he take it?
In the audience, I deflated. I thought, “Wrong move.” Maybe I was too enamored of Molly to let her go. Maybe Molly didn’t seem like someone who would either purposefully or accidentally OD. She seemed stronger than that. Her death felt false and unnecessary.
But it sets up our end. Stephen blackmails Morris to get back on his campaign. He gets Paul fired, gets Paul’s job, gets the quid pro quo with Sen. Thompson, which will put Morris, his man, but a man he no longer believes in, in the White House.
But at what cost? Stephen, never particularly warm, is now cold. He’s Ryan-Gosling-in-“Drive” cold. He’s lost himself. Paul had told him, as he was firing him, that without loyalty, “You are nothing, you are no one,” and that’s what Stephen is now, nothing and no one, and at the end we get a close-up of him, about to go on a cable news show, listening to Morris talk about “honesty” and “integrity” and all the things the campaign no longer stands for. The corruption of the true believer is complete.
Well done. Smart. Just the one false note with Molly's death.
But deep? If I could talk to George Clooney I would ask him this: Do you feel that to succeed in national politics one has to become as ruthless as Ryan Gosling becomes in your movie? Is this true in any business? Is this true in Hollywood? Do you feel, as you’ve risen in Hollywood, that you’ve become more ruthless and corrupt? Or are movies like “The Ides of March” mere palliatives for all of the folks in the audience who can console themselves that while they may not be successful, at least they’re not corrupt? They still have their souls.
None of this, by the way, is new material for Clooney. From my review of “The American”:
The longer Clooney’s been a star in Hollywood, the more he’s played the cool, distant professional in an unethical business who is thinking of escape, of saving what’s left of his soul. Think “Syrianna,” “Michael Clayton,” “Up in the Air” and now “The American.” I don’t want to be an assassin, a fixer, a man who fires people, an assassin. Do we add movie star to the list? Are these roles a cry for help? Maybe it’s George Clooney who is the cool, distant professional in an unethical business who wants to save what’s left of his soul.
Becoming corrupt to achieve success or fleeing corruption to save your soul. I appreciate Clooney using his status, his success, to make movies for adults; but surely there’s more to life, and storytelling, than these two options.
October 15, 2011
© 2011 Erik Lundegaard