Review: Politics is warfare without bullets. All war is really about who we identify with, and why, and to what extent we will defend our collective identity and all that it means to us. It’s been said that the first casualty of war is innocence (or truth), and by extension, we understand the true casualty is the human soul. George Clooney’s 2011 film ‘The Ides of March’, adapted from the play ‘Farragut North’ by Beau Willimon, is about that terrible moment of spiritual violence as it occurs in two men: Junior campaign manager Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) and Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney). They are mirror images of each other; idealistic, brilliant, driven, and undercut by their own pride and lust.
In the film’s opening scene, Meyers walks on stage and gives a speech which is effectively an oath of religious loyalty to the United States Constitution. It turns out he’s simply reading Morris’ lines, doing a sound check on a darkened stage, but we don’t doubt for a minute that he believes it as strongly as Morris. Stephen Meyers is the ultimate political enthusiast; he ties the very fate of his soul to that of his candidate, and views himself as an extension of the candidate’s identity, as if Meyers was a fragment of Morris that converses with him from outside Morris’ conscious mind. In war, soldiers wear a uniform to subsume them into the group, and in politics, the fighters wear their candidate, whether in campaign paraphernalia or ideology, and the effect of both strategies is to make the individual’s fate concurrent with the whole.
When the political bond between candidate and supporter is strong enough, all it takes is a single, critical mistake to reverberate through the entire campaign and force the parts of the whole to face each other as individuals. The first sign of trouble appears when Meyers accepts a meeting with a rival campaign manager (Paul Giamatti,) who offers him a job, and the crucial tip that both campaigns are gunning for the same supporter. Meyers refuses the job offer, but his rival insists that Morris is like any other politician; prone to corruption and bound to fall. Because Meyers does not alert his own boss (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to the illicit meeting and its details, he becomes the target of a savvy reporter (Marisa Tomei) and begins to keep secrets, justifying them by his crucial role in Morris’ campaign. He begins an affair with a beautiful intern (Evan Rachel Wood,) only to discover that Morris has been with her as well, and has impregnated her.
With his own corruption weighing on his soul, and his candidate’s idealistic façade exposed, Meyers chooses a dark path to save the campaign. The scene in which Meyers make his decision is well-executed on every front. He sits in his car in the dark under pounding rain, voice mails echoing in his head like accusing spirits, while Gosling plays Meyers as utterly overwhelmed, his tears lost in the reflection of raindrops on his face.
Not only is Clooney’s direction solid, but his portrayal of Morris is subtle and believable. Like Meyers, Morris is on the defensive, and even before corruption infects the campaign the two men are subtly at odds, vying for control over the message. Clooney plays Morris as a man who has lied to himself to protect his ideals because he believes that the message is more important than his conscience. To Morris and Meyers, the war trumps the solider; a little bloodshed is necessary to win the fight, and what does it matter if it’s their own persons that are destroyed in the process? When the two men finally face each other, instead of letting the campaign go to save themselves, they agree, in effect, to destroy each other’s souls.
Considering how profundity bleeds from the film’s subtext, I have to admit I find it more than a little odd that critical reaction wasn’t more favorable. This is a great thriller, one fashioned in the mold of ’70s political films like ‘All the President’s Men’, with a kind of cynical clarity of vision. Its most direct homage to the era is its darkly ambiguous ending, which may be the reason some critics find the film underwhelming. The film doesn’t tie up everything in a neat little bow, instead cutting to black right before a climatic decision is made, and in doing so Clooney denies us the most obvious form of catharsis. Instead, we must provide our own, dwelling on the film’s powerful themes until we realize the film isn’t about Stephen Meyers, but what it means to live in a society where political responsibility rests on our shoulders. The film ends with Gosling’s character breaking the fourth wall, looking us in the eye, in effect asking us, “What decision would you make?” In the campaign for the heart, you decide who wins.