Note: This is a modified version of an article originally posted on The Niles Files, on October 9, 2011.
George Clooney’s The Ides of March is about Hollywood, just as much—if not more so—as it is about insider politics. Clooney is cognizant of his public reputation as an activist Movie Star and filmmaker, and so understands that his film will be perceived as smug politicking from the Entertainment Industrial Complex, as with previous offerings like Good Night and Good Luck and Syriana. Those two films were released in 2005, and—whatever their respective flaws—they were passionate, uncompromising, and heavily distributed warnings about the political climate of the 2K decade. But instead of being silenced, the Joseph McCarthys of the last ten years have seemed to grow in popularity and influence, the divisiveness between Red and Blue states dug in deeper than ever. Meanwhile the waste of late capitalism, as dramatized in Syriana, has only become more palpable, doomed to disastrously explode rather than be placated or solved.
The Ides of March joins The Adjustment Bureau and Moneyball as recent reflections of Obama-Era disenchantment, where the idealism of the new hip boss is, if an improvement on the old boss, still not sufficient to make “Hope” any more than a catch phrase. It’s the Audacity of “Eh.” Gridlock and effective narrative construction, strategies the Right has mastered, make progress milquetoast. Media and Politics are bridged worlds, one and the same, selling stories and myths that prioritize maintaining an audience over any demonstrable change. The Ides of March acknowledges the futility of both elections and Hollywood narratives.
As a political movie it offers nothing new, and is initially underwhelming. An ideal left-wing candidate, Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), is running in a fictional Democratic primary against an old-school tax-and-spend liberal. Through his bid for power we are introduced to the machinery and wheels running beneath the ideas, as well as a group of campaign consultants, including young Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), learning to sacrifice their principles to the beast of political discourse. There are issues of loyalty, with Myers torn between his mentor, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who runs the Morris campaign, and the rival campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who works to lure Myers to his side. There is the duplicitous hunger of the media, embodied by a New York Times reporter, Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), who plays chummy with Myers but is really only motivated by getting a big scoop. Both primary candidates are working for the endorsement of a sleazy senator (Jeffrey Wright), whose delegates can be had in exchange for a promised cabinet post. And finally, there is the contrivance of the alluring young woman, Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), a campaign intern who seduces—or is seduced by—more than one main character.
This sexual contrivance was of particular annoyance at first viewing. The seduction occurs in intense close-ups between Molly and Stephen during an after-work drink, with the young woman looking like a hollow design for conflict, and the young man as a flawed douchebag more interested in careerism than love. The affair moves into another dimension all too quickly, as a late-night cell-phone mix-up discloses that Molly is having a liaison with the heretofore perfect Gov. Morris. In the same scene, Molly implies she is pregnant and wants an abortion. Stephen is hurled into confusion. Previously, he had put Morris the man on par with his ideology. Now Stephen realizes that Morris represents the caricature of deviance often drawn of liberals: a horny philanderer who screws his buddy’s daughter, then looks the other way as she kills an unborn baby.
Stephen steals campaign money for the abortion, but he’s distracted from Molly’s problems when Zara fires Stephen for not telling him about a secret meeting he’s had with Duffy. “In politics, loyalty is the only currency that matters,” Zara says. Stephen plans a late-game change, where he’ll give Duffy information of the affair and abortion in exchange for a job. Again, however, trust is valued over skill: Duffy elects not to hire Stephen because, he says, a man who seeks revenge is a man who can’t be trusted. Stumbling back to his hotel, Stephen finds that Molly has committed suicide. He grabs her phone—which links her to Morris—and uses his information to preserve his job. The Constitution is not his religion. Self-Interest is.
Pardon the spoilers, but that’s The Ides of March. It’s an unusual narrative for a prestige film (perhaps showing its theatrical roots, adapted from the play Farragut North), and I’m not sure it’s exactly what audiences or critics are expecting. Whereas most stories conclude with some kind of cathartic release or resolution, The Ides of March has no ending, just regurgitation, and the film ends with what seems to be the beginning of the story most of the audience probably wanted to see. It is about the frustration of cover-ups, the gap in politics—and entertainment—between truth and manipulated narrative. There is no closure, just as in our political world documented in 24-hour cable news cycles. Molly, the hot intern, is just as quickly replaced by another sexually attractive twenty-year-old who riles the men around her with latent lust as she brings them coffee. Indeed, we are right to be upset with Clooney for having Molly serve as nothing more than a contrivance. Her purpose is reduced to keeping a plot moving, as fulfillment is delayed while we sit rapt in front of a screen. Similarly, politics are structured with no end save for the perpetuation of a present that always promises hope for tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.
The woman as impelling agent of desire is a hallmark of Hollywood movies: the femme fatale, the romantic love interest, whatever it is, as long as it has legs, breasts, a comely smile, and is under the age of thirty. A naïve and superficial viewing of The Ides of March would instantly—and does—trigger a dismayed reaction of “pure contrivance.” But thinking about Molly’s function as a character reveals Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov’s intentions. Stephen is distracted from sex with Molly by a Town Hall meeting on TV starring Morris who is, humorously enough, talking about gay marriage. Stephen’s desire is plugged not into Molly but politics, and, more than that, the electronic delivery of the message—which is exactly what a film director is concerned with. As for Molly, the scene where she confesses her pregnancy deliberately calls attention to her status as a contrivance. She is malleable, going from Stephen’s lover, to Morris’s, and then to pregnant, all in the space of a minute. That she is portrayed as a victim doesn’t necessarily make her one, another odd attribute both of Molly’s place as a character and of Clooney’s direction. Everyone is framing a narrative, altering history and constructing a message with a lie, something we see the morning after when Stephen casts Molly as “the cleaning lady” to whomever he is talking to on phone, while she claims that he seduced her, when it’s perfectly clear that she worked to seduce him (as expressed in lines of dialogue like, “I’ve been trying to fuck you for a long time”). The sick joke climaxes at her funeral. Molly’s father eulogizes her, referring to how she “touched” so many people. Indeed, she did touch quite a few people. Her function has little to do with her talent, and everything to do with her comely smile in a close-up.
We too are sutured into the pathos, or pretend like we are, which is in accordance to the nature of politics. Clooney means to ask us if we’re falling for it. Do we believe the speeches? Does Clooney’s electronic message control us, like Stephen’s cell-phone blackmail manages to control Morris? At the beginning of the picture, Morris announces at a debate, “My religion and what I believe is called the Constitution.” He’s told (by his advisers) that his form of rhetoric works for “student council president,” but not President of the United States—but he still won’t back off. We listen to him, and we’re as “goosebumpy” as Stephen, who admits, “I have drunk the Kool-Aid, and it’s delicious.” Morris earns more respect when he shakes his head after someone passes him a laptop. This man of the “real world” says, “Give me a hard copy. I hate those fucking things.” Later on he shows how down-to-earth he is when he responds to Myers’s belief that noble missions can’t end in a disaster. “Roberto Clemente,” Morris points out, Clemente being the baseball player who died on his way to bring earthquake relief to South America.
But at the end of the picture, Morris is in shadow, surrounded by the silver metallics of a cafeteria kitchen, blending into the grey world of tools for consumption around him. This dark moment works on us because Clooney’s perpetually nice-guy image is also now tainted in our moviegoer heads. Even when—and sometimes especially when—Clooney has played criminals in the past, he’s always been sympathetic or likable. This is his darkest character, even as he is, conceptually, a nation’s brightest hope.
So is Mike Morris just “singing Kumbaya,” as Zara cynically implies? This is the pertinent question Clooney and Heslov are asking: Is the ideal candidate worth it if their personal life is morally questionable? Is the figurehead different from the man of flesh and blood? Morris himself states, “Society has to be better than individuals.” This dream candidate is all too human. But FDR, probably the greatest president of the Twentieth Century, also was a man of questionable virtue in his personal life, while George W. Bush, who may have been a very good man (as Oliver Stone portrays him to be in W.), was maybe the worst president of the last hundred years. The dark and sticky stuff of sex and abortion, which all politics seems to collapse toward, is personal. So it’s strange, as Myers tells Morris, that “you can bankrupt a nation, you can start unnecessary wars, but you don’t fuck the intern.” This is the irrational truth of political discourse. Public violations are far more acceptable than private ones. The political life is a willing sacrifice of its stated ideals, dignity and integrity, which it nevertheless continues to talk about. As he chides Myers, Duffy offers a desperate warning that seems to squeal from the vestige of his humanity: “Get out.” Duffy is mapping out a new world for the Democratic Party, where they must be “meaner, tougher and more disciplined”—descending to the Machiavellian level of the Republicans. The dark message of Clooney’s “liberal message movie” is that if Democrats hope to win, they have to get rid of that annoying “humanity” thing.
Politicians are like artists who give their lives for the creation of imaginary narratives and images. The public feeds on it, but the artisans struggle for respite. In Julius Caesar, when Caesar is assassinated on the “Ides of March”—from which Clooney’s picture takes its title—he refers to himself in the third person. “Caesar” the politician is an independent creation. Shakespeare was himself a very ironic artist, whose medium is so often the message, the theme of performance being central to his plays. Clooney marries this perennial truth of political drama to meta-movie observations. The Ides of March, with its credit titles in a distinct font recalling a rich 1970s-movie inheritance, begins with Myers reading from Morris’s scripted speech while the lights and sound are prepped in the auditorium for a subsequent debate. The buzz of a moderator’s desk is loudly generated, calling attention to the showmanship and technology used in staging the “message.” The Ides of March will end in a similar environment, with Myers sitting in a Hollywood production-style director’s or actor’s chair, putting in an earpiece for sound, and looking directly at the camera—not a camera in the studio, but at us, at Clooney’s camera, the film surrounding and encompassing the fiction.
As Steven Ross documents in his recent book, Hollywood Left and Right, American movies have a rich history of political involvement. But though activist figures like Clooney, Warren Beatty, Barbara Streisand and Matt Damon (those “elitists”) generate the most attention and so lead people to see Hollywood as a liberal establishment, Ross documents how the Right really controls the narrative, through figures like Louis B. Mayer, incidents like the Blacklist, the political involvement of Charlton Heston, and the elections of Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sonny Bono. More than a cult of personality, it’s the style of an “American Narrative” that most explicitly expresses the dominance of triumphalist, conservative values in Hollywood. More complicated senses of collective guilt, nuance and empathy are not as successful as simplicity, good and evil, might makes right, an eye for an eye and American righteousness. The more dialectical experience offered by “Left wing” filmmakers usually ends up annoying typical moviegoers who “just want to be entertained” and feel good (look at Meek’s Cutoff, The Tree of Life, Terri and Drive—the four best films I’ve seen this year, all of which are upsetting many mainstream—and indie—American moviegoers).
Do the Right Thing and Thelma and Louise did not necessarily mean progress for blacks and women in film and culture; and Brokeback Mountain didn’t open up the floodgates for acceptance of gays. As South Park pointed out in their satire of Clooney’s Oscar acceptance speech from 2006, derided as a large cloud of “Smug,” Hollywoodland is distinct from middle-class America, and Clooney is here admitting to that. But he’s also showing how people simply refuse to understand celebrity, either Political or Televisual: the “Smug” is part of the performance; it is the audience that shrinks from tearing down the fourth wall. We embrace the Lie, as we always have. If there is to be any sort of revolution or change, the public too must be snapped out of its entrancement and hypnosis by images.
This may be the key theme of Clooney’s body of work. Beyond Good Night and Good Luck, about newsman Edward R. Murrow (an excellent David Strathairn) going against Joseph McCarthy, Clooney’s first film was the undervalued Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, where Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) leads a double life as Gong Show entertainer and CIA assassin. The underbelly of entertainment and politics is performed by the same characters. In both cases, the audience sits rapt, passive, and docile.
Clooney must make a liberal movie where liberals are made to look their worst, and so exorcise himself of the “Smug Elitism,” which he knows does indeed exist in his profession. Clooney has persistently worked against his movie-star status, disappointing his viewers in Solaris, Up in the Air, Michael Clayton and The American, staying away from pat endings and clear distinctions of good and evil, and demanding that they engage with the picture. Will a pissed-off audience result in change? People demanding their money back? A dialectical exchange of ideas? Clooney himself may be too jaded. But his refusal to be absorbed by the tropes of his world indicates that those ideals of dignity and integrity still run, if not in him personally (can they, for celebrities in either Washington or Hollywood?), then at least through his work.