Embroiled in politics corrupt and corrupting, George Clooney’s The Ides Of March charts the tragic fate of one man irredeemably lost, and on the way up.
The Grand Illusion by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
There’s not so much as a whiff of Julius Caesar or even a mention of the film’s title throughout its 101-minute duration. Which begs the question why George Clooney bothered to change the name from Beau Willimon’s off-Broadway hit play Farragut North. It’s true, there is a similarity to Shakespeare’s tragedy in the film’s murmured politicking and ambitious allegiances, but The Ides Of March offers primarily an unmisted window into the reality of American politics and a soul-crushing insight into one man’s descent from philanthropic ideals to self-serving deals. It may not have the bloody drama of tragedy, but its pointed script puts it on a par with Good Night, And Good Luck rather than Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind or Leatherheads. Only on the campaign trail where it’s easy for a good man to lose himself.
“Beware the Ides of March.” So says the blind soothsayer to Caesar on this day before he is later stabbed to death by his senators. Some do it for good, others for envy, and others for ambition. And it’s the same murky political demimonde that George Clooney’s The Ides Of March inhabits, only this time with character assassinations rather than real ones. An inescapable web of dirty deals and ruthless careerism pervades. Even for Democrats. And as the film opens with would-be presidential candidate Mike Morris’ Junior Campaign Manager Stephen Meyers intoning “Don’t vote for me” over an empty auditorium, rehearsing a candidacy speech and testing the acoustics, we’re treated to a show-manly and hopefully improvised seeming coup de théâtre on behalf of the Governor. Like Clooney’s film, defying expectations and breaking the mould.
It’s a brilliant piece of casting with George Clooney, the actor and director, as presidential candidate Mike Morris whose forward-looking politics seem to match, by and large, those of the social activist and humanitarian himself. And even if the film remains silent on the director’s most renowned causes célèbres, Darfur and Haiti, it’s liberally sprinkled with Clooney politics on the home front – anti-war, anti-oil and pro-gay marriage. He’s the high-minded Governor trying to run a clean campaign with no fundraisers or negative adverts, but faced with the bitter wind of American electoral politics, the line he’s drawn in the sand slowly and inevitably erodes. Starting with a cynical move to toughen their stance on civil service by making it mandatory, a boon for voters everywhere only likely to be opposed by those too young to vote. Darn it.
Nor is Stephen Meyer immune from the shifting sands of politics either. He is of course the kind of Junior Campaign Manager you want, the kind who gets distracted from sex when a primary debate comes on the television. And here too it’s a tailor-made casting coup, with Ryan Gosling as the impossibly charming young man who can draw people in and make it look effortless. So irresistible in fact the other side want to poach him. And inside the highly pressured, high-stakes crucible of an election campaign, with the result wavering irresolutely in the balance, it’s a question of how far both man and campaign will go to succeed. From joking asides, “That’s the kind of shit the Republicans pull”, to reluctant bartering with a senator to pocket all the delegates they need in one fell swoop, deals are made, stories planted and polls agonised over.
It’s no surprise then that Stephen should meet up with the Campaign Manager from the rival camp. Flattered, curious or with an ear for information and an eye for the winning ticket, he faces his own “Et tu, Brute?” dilemma, but no sooner is he sat down in the sports diner than he’s snared. He eventually confesses to Campaign Manager Paul Zara, who promptly leaks the meet to the press and fires him in a grandstanding speech on the political currency of loyalty. But disillusioned that the clean-cut Governor has broken the only law in politics and seduced the intern, our man on the outside wants back in, at any cost. There’s nothing more dangerous than a man with no more faith to lose, and in the end Stephen proves Paul wrong; loyalty isn’t the currency of politics, it’s power. And his knowledge of Molly’s abortion puts him in a powerful position to barter with the senator for a promotion.
It’s a friendless, fickle world fabulously enlightened by Ryan Gosling, in the end cast deep into the shadows, his face half lit, half in darkness, tainted by his own Machiavellian schemes. And in its own flannel-suited way, it’s heartbreaking too; the young believer’s idealism shattered, railing against his puppet masters with a haunting, mournful reproach for the way he’s been played like a pawn, “But this is my life!” – the human cost to political success never far away. It’s gripping too, a tension epitomised by the scene in which Philip Seymour Hoffman’s hound-dog aide meets his political maker in a black 4×4 outside his hotel, being sacked in silence but for the engine thrumming. It might not be dark or politically astute enough to rival All The President’s Men or have the visual flair of The Manchurian Candidate, but offering us a glimpse of the power structures under the illusions of friendship, it’s utterly terrifying.
The Ides Of March is released in the UK on 28th October 2011