The Muck of Politics

Watching The Ides of March brought back memories of Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate (1972)—a quieter, less melodramatic film, with a richer depiction of the mechanics of the political process and the power of the media to shape it. The candidate in the earlier film, an idealistic and Kennedy-like public service lawyer played by Robert Redford, runs for the Senate in California against a glib conservative. By the time he wins the election he has almost forgotten what his original goals were, and has been transformed into a handsome commodity. He hedges on the issues and speaks in empty slogans and rhetoric about “courage and compassion.”

The Ides of March, which co-stars George Clooney (who also directed and co-wrote the film) as principled Democratic presidential hopeful Governor Mike Morris, goes over some of the same ground. But it is even more cynical about the political process than The Candidate. It offers us the stale news that politicians deceive their constituents, stray from their wives, and make political deals that compromise their stated ideals and stump speeches. The candidates’ strategists—played by two heavyweight (and plump) actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman (Paul Zara) on Morris’s side and Paul Giamatti (Tom Duffy) on the other—are men who eat and sleep politics, and whose only political commitment is to win elections by any means necessary. (Duffy’s campaign maxim is, “We’re going to get down in the mud with the fucking elephants.”) And even the strategist whose candidate loses will inevitably end up on K Street as a well-paid lobbyist. Though Zara has one rule—loyalty—that makes him a touch less cynical, he is no more sympathetic than his rival.

Morris says all the right things unwaveringly and intelligently, affirming every liberal talking point. He smoothly brushes aside his opponent’s religious challenge with, “My religion is the U.S. Constitution.” But the film’s prime focus is on his handsome, young, gifted press secretary, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), who adulates Morris—the man and his ideals—but is also extremely ambitious. His idealism can’t prevent him from being dragged into the mire of betrayal and double-dealing that is the political norm in this film.

The Ides of March is filled with complicated plot turns—a suicide, firings, blackmail. It all seems contrived, and over the top, less suited to a serious political film than to a thriller, which may have been the filmmakers’ intention. The Ides of March is very clever, well-acted, and briskly paced, but it’s practically empty of genuine political content. When Myers loses his faith in Morris, it’s not because he’s betrayed his political commitments but because he’s fired him for an unseemly meeting with Duffy. By the film’s conclusion Myers has turned into a man who is nothing more than raw ambition, his face a somber mask without a touch of the charm he once exuded. In another telling element, the only reporter with a speaking role in the film, Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), is a New York Times flack without scruples who believes in nothing but scoops.

The struggle that both primary candidates engage in for the support of the powerful Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), who is out for the highest bidder, is another way the film avoids greater political resonance. The North Carolina Senator is cold, calculating, imperious, and black. But Clooney skirts the issue of race and represents Morris’s making a deal with Thompson to gain power—someone we assume doesn’t share his political ideals—as a commonplace, as if there is nothing unique about a black man in the South with Thompson’s power and status.

Politics are dirty, and it’s hard to sustain one’s ideals in the everyday muck. We live in a time when the political process is paralyzed and seems odious. One party’s only principles are the obstruction and demolition of the other’s agenda, while the other party demonstrates barely an iota of courage.

But the parties maintain divergent visions of government, which still make real (albeit not radical) differences in our lives. A less facile film might have explored the real political differences between the candidates and not just stylishly evoked all the squalid machinations involved in winning an election. The film’s cynicism is too easy. Morris’s principles are mere window dressing for a film that believes that corruption and duplicity are the rule.

Leonard Quart is the coauthor of the fourth edition of American Film and Society Since 1945 and is a contributing editor of Cineaste.

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