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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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.