Allow me to make no bones about it: The Ides of March is a good movie. Occasionally, it is a very good movie. What it is not, regrettably, is a great movie, a fact that is surprising when one considers the very real expectation that it has every reason to be great: directed and co-written by and starring Filmdom’s favorite actor, George Clooney, and featuring a formidable cast comprising Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the film purports itself to be a self-important, self-ordained and self-stylized political drama that ultimately has nothing new to say. By the time the closing credits roll, the only real thing the film has expounded upon its audience is the very, very, very well-established notion that successful politics is about successful lying and successfully positioning oneself as something other than the reality of one’s own identity. In short, Ides is begging us to understand that while power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Which, of course, we already knew.
Where the film does make some interesting inroads is in the backroom dealings it depicts in modern political campaigns. Everyone knows that every politician lies and that all of them are playing by the same set of deceptive rules. What is a mystery, however, is why certain politicians seem to get away with it time after time, often times given a free pass by the media or a public unsure of how to handle that about which they have been lied to (see post Iraq invasion America).
Cliched movie messages aside, the film is really about the recent trend in presidential politics in which the presidential candidate is inseparable from (if not altogether eclipsed by) his senior campaign manager: can you, for example think of George W. Bush without Karl Rove, or Barack Obama without David Axelrod or David Plouffe? Gosling’s character (Stephen Meyers) is a sort of Gepetto to Clooney’s Pinocchio, and in many ways, the real-life and reel-life duos resemble the man-behind-the-curtain at the end of the Yellow Brick Road. The face/visual/visage/candidate is really just a façade. No politician, Clooney infers, is any more real than a character played by an actor. It’s in the delivery of that character that any great political career rises and falls, just as the performance of an actor is applauded or derided by their ability to convey character to an audience. Will the audience buy it? Will the voters cast a ‘yes’ in favor of the face that promises prosperity? Do they, in the end, have a choice?
Clooney also infers that all campaigns are inherently a lie: no politician can keep every promise he or she makes, nor even most of the promises they make. You can read their lips and produce all the documentation you want. In the end, the purpose of a political career is not to effect change or to improve the lives of the citizenry, but to perpetuate the electability of individual politicians.
What hath democracy wrought?