In my experience, every presidential election brings about at least some small blossoming of idealism. The campaigns begin in tiny hamlets in New Hampshire and Iowa; at this stage, the process is not usually saturated with money. Rather, the candidates are compelled to descend from their pedestals in state capitols or Washington and speak to the people directly. Politics is retail business at this juncture: the candidates are in a position to talk about what precisely they believe. Their belief connects with the hopes of the electorate: yes, things can be better, they will be better.
The bloom begins to fade almost as soon as the first votes are cast. Aspersions fly in newspapers. Media consultants slug it out on talk radio and television. Compromises are made to assure advantage: a few more votes in one state or another can make all the difference. As time goes on and the race grows tighter, spin control becomes all: the candidate is the message and the message, in order to offend the least amount of people, becomes vacuous. By this point idealism lay withered, turned brown and fading into the dust. Should the candidate make it to high office, then their time will be plagued with the consequences of all the deals that were made along the way. It is difficult to achieve genuine change under these circumstances; the people in Iowa and New Hampshire who met the candidate while he or she could get away with rolled up shirt sleeves and idealism rest in the graveyard of memory.
Perhaps this cycle of hope and disappointment is just part and parcel of the political process. Perhaps it is due to our flaws as human beings. Perhaps it is worse in America than elsewhere because so many high-minded ideals were written into its founding documents. Whatever the reason, it is useful to be reminded of the realities of American politics and “The Ides of March”, first released in 2011 and now available on Blu-ray and DVD, does the job rather effectively.
The film’s central character is Stephen Meyers, a political consultant, played by Ryan Gosling. He works for Mike Morris (George Clooney), a fictional Governor of Pennsylvania and unabashedly liberal candidate for President. Morris is supposed to be reminiscent of Barack Obama in many respects: in addition to his rhetoric calling for change, Morris’ “inexperience” is cited, and Shephard Fairey-esque posters of Morris are plastered throughout the campaign office, urging everyone to “Believe”. Other campaigns are cited as well: “I Like Mike” posters are directly derived from the “I Like Ike” posters of 1952 and 1956. Clooney plays Morris with a touch of JFK’s charisma, and copies Tony Blair’s dislike of information technology.
Stephen Meyers is swept away by enthusiasm: he tells a reporter that he has “drunk the Kool Aid” and thoroughly enjoys its flavour. Perhaps it is partially due to his youth (his character is merely 31), but he genuinely believes Morris will bring change to America. He’s warned that he will be disappointed.
The film is set during the Ohio Democratic primary campaign: it’s a make or break contest for Morris. The polls are inconclusive; Morris’ main rival, a Senator Pullman from Arkansas, and the Governor swap the lead back and forth. Both are trying to secure the support of Senator Franklin Thompson (Jeffrey Wright) a candidate who has dropped out the race: with his delegates and endorsement, victory would be assured. In keeping with his ideals, Morris, at first, will not make the compromises necessary (i.e. grant a cabinet post) with Thompson in order to triumph. The film utilises this febrile backdrop to move the plot along quickly: things begin to unravel for Meyers relatively early in the film. Meyers makes a mistake: he accepts a meeting with a rival campaign manager (Paul Giamatti), and then not informing his superior, Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He then embarks on an ill-considered affair with a junior intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) who also happens to be the daughter of the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Quite by accident, he stumbles upon a truth about Morris which suggests that the man for whom Meyers had worked so assiduously has feet of clay, and indeed is depraved in some respects. At the same time, Meyers’ career goes into a tailspin because of his perceived lack of loyalty.
The viewer accompanies Meyers at each stage of his downward journey: Gosling is not the most versatile actor I’ve ever seen, nevertheless, he is excellent at showing different layers of emotion at once. For example, in one of the final scenes, a New York Times journalist (Marisa Tomei) who had previously betrayed him, attempts to cozy up, asking, “Am I not your friend?” Gosling’s tight expression shows anger, sorrow, disillusionment and yet composure all at once: his reply, “You’re my best friend” was devastating and subtle.
Clooney’s talents also shine: his portrayal of Morris as a man who is much less than meets the eye and an odd mix of venal and moral (e.g., Morris’s aversion to “deals”) is effective. His performance is so emphatic that I temporarily wondered if every successful politician was so insubstantial: it is certainly true for the Republican field in this year’s campaign.
Nevertheless, the viewer is mostly with Gosling’s character, or rather, standing next to him. His pained expression while positioned in the midst of a bright and enthusiastic crowd is noticeable. His hands at his sides contrast with those raised in applause. Like him, we know too much: the flower of idealism has died, all that remains is calculation, advantage, and victory. We end the film feeling hollow: Gosling’s final scene, which shows his blank mien as he prepares to be interviewed on national television, leaves the viewer little doubt that all that made Meyers the bright young thing he was at the start of the story is dead and buried. He has grown up, but has the price been too high? And where will the abundant hopes of those who wave the “I Like Mike” signs lay buried?
“The Ides of March” wisely doesn’t answer these questions. If you’re an optimist, you will believe that some of Morris’ promises will be fulfilled, despite the flaws in both the man and the campaign. If you’re a pessimist, your impression will be that the process itself is too debauched to achieve much in terms of practical results. What no viewer can feel is that same sort of can-do spirit which animated Obama’s 2008 campaign and writ “Yes, we can” temporarily as the national motto. “The Ides of March” arises from the charred remains of those hopes; it could not exist without it, let alone be a masterpiece.