George Clooney's 2011 political film The Ides of March is based on Beau Willimon's 2008 play "Farragut North," which is itself based on the 2004 Democratic primary campaign of Howard Dean. That is to say, The Ides of March is a political drama situated squarely in the "now." It's story is post-9/11, post-Iraq and -Afghanistan wars, post Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. It's not post-Obama, nor is it post-economic crisis, but the valence of those events is palpable and all the film's characters are recognizable ones of our time: the idealistic liberal, the libertarian conservative, the cynical behind-the-scenes politicos, the suspicious journalists, the naive volunteers and interns, the disillusioned electorate. The film follows Pennsylvania Senator Henry Morris (played by George Clooney) on his Presidential election campaign. Morris' campaign is run by a pair of smart and savvy advisers, who operate with and against each other like a Janus head. There's the irascible, slightly paranoid, obsessive journeyman Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and the brilliant, driven, disciplined, but tragically idealistic wunderkind Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling). The plot turns as much on the relationship between Zara and Meyers as it does on the deeds/misdeeds of Morris.
[Spoiler alert! Skip this paragraph if you don't want plot details revealed.]
In fact, the title of the film "the Ides of March"-- a reference to the day that Caesar was stabbed to death in the Roman senate by a group of friends and conspirators-- seems to describe best the downfall of Zara at the hands of Meyers. Meyers is a True Believer for most of the film; he works tirelessly on behalf of Senator Morris because he believes in the person and the character of Morris. Meyers has good reason for that belief. Morris is the model of a "principled" candidate: he's boldly and straightforwardly atheist (arguing in campaign debates that "the Constitutions is [his] religion"), he's anti-war, he's an environmentalist, he's for the working class, he's pro-technology, he's cosmopolitan. Meyers' believes that Morris is the one who should be President, the one who's different, the change he can believe in. So, Meyers does not find himself sullied or soiled by the dirtiness of politics that is his business. He believes he is backing the best candidate,and he says as much several times in the film. Meyers' talent, intellect and dedication do not go unnoticed by the opposition, however. When the campaign manager (played by Paul Giamatti) for Morris' Republican opponent tries to lure Meyers over to the other side, Meyers rejects the offer, but he suffers a guilty conscience for entertaining the idea of jumping ship, which he sees as an implicit betrayal of his mentor Zara. No sooner does Meyer get a chance to smooth out the wrinkles of his minor indiscretion than he is met with the cold, hard, ugly truth of Senator Morris' major indiscretions. Meyers learns of Morris' illicit affair with a young campaign intern (resulting in a pregnancy, an abortion, and a suicide) and Meyers' disillusionment is devastating. Alas, he's a True Believer by constitution, so instead of turning on his candidate, he turns on Zara instead and uses his knowledge of Morris' affair to oust his mentor. The twist of The Ideas of March is that the audience is led all along to believe that Morris is the "Caesar" of the film, that he will be betrayed by those he trusts, and that that trust will be as much his undoing as his actual misdeeds. Morris is not undone in this film, though. Everyone else is.
Pace the NYT review, I thought The Ides of March was a solid film. My favor is largely based in Clooney's performance as the good guy/bad guy Morris. Clooney is one of the few actors, in my view, who can so effortlessly, seamlessly and believably manage complex characters who are equal parts good and bad. Clooney played a similar good guy/bad guy in the 2009 Reitman film Up In The Air, a remarkable film that I reviewed here. The only other actors with this skill that come to mind are Clint Eastwood (for example, in Unforgiven) and Jeff Bridges (most impressively, in Crazy Heart and True Grit), though The Ides of March co-stars Ryan Gosling and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are pretty adept in this area as well (see their performances in Half Nelson and Capote, respectively). The trick about playing the good guy/bad guy (hereafter GG/BG) is that both the goodness of the character and the badness of the character has to be maintained with integrity, and simultaneously. It can't be the case that the GG/BG turns from good to bad, or from bad to good, as happens with both Gosling's character and Hoffman's character in The Ides of March. (That's just peripeteia, a device we're all accustomed to seeing in tragedies.) Rather, the GG/BG has to maintain a tension, an undecidability, that makes it impossible to issue judgments about his or her character with any kind of resolve.
No doubt, the reason Clooney's character in The Ides of March resonates so deeply with me is because he reminds me of President Obama (and more than a little bit like President Bill Clinton). I was a True Believer in Obama back during the 2008 campaign season. I thought he was the one. Then, he got elected and he didn't end the wars, he didn't help the gays, he didn't close Guantanamo Bay, he didn't reverse the Patriot Act, he didn't deliver the change I believed in and voted for. Like Meyers believed of Morris in The Ides of March, I believe-- despite all the evidence to the contrary-- that Obama is still a man of principle. Principles that I share. So, the disillusionment that I feel when recognizing that Obama is just a man like any other, perhaps even just a politician like any other, is truly disheartening. It's disheartening because he hasn't become a Bad Guy. (Obama, for all his faults, is not Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld.) He's just weak and mortal and imperfect and a whole host of other vices that we don't permit in our heroes. Obama is a GG/BG, which makes it impossible for us True Believers to stop loving him, but also to start hating him.
Maybe Zara isn't really the Caesar-character in The Ides of March. Maybe Meyers is. Meyers stands in for all of us True Believers whose "et tu?" cries are the dominant, and unfortunate, civic sound of the new millennium.