“The Ides of March” is a thorough examination of the blemishes on the face of politics that lie beneath hastily applied stage makeup. It is a film that reveals the flaws of the American political system, presents a portrait of shattered ideals and refuses to take a black or white stance on a graying ideology.
Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is the quick-thinking press secretary of Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney.) He is a man with a knack for manipulating the American media, digging up dirt on his opponents and wriggling out of tight spots with ease. Like a well-sharpened knife, he can wound swiftly. Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti,) an opposing candidate’s press secretary, tells Stephen he “draws people in” — and he does, drawing us in to the swirling shitstorm of scandal and intrigue that is American politics.
In a poignant scene, Governor Morris is speaking to the public in front of a monstrous American flag backdrop, and behind it, his advisers, blackened by shadows, argue about betrayal and blunder. The scene reflects the stark disparity between what the public sees and what is hidden behind the cloak of the flag.
But what is truly behind the American flag? In “The Ides of March,” it is not usually women, mostly just suited men huddled in somber rooms, scared faces half-hidden in shadowy stairwells, quarrels in darkened kitchen corners and doors slamming shut. In the film, that is quite a bit of secrecy for a government that claims to be transparent. Amid all the scandal, the public is not just forgotten but forsaken. People are pawns to be used for their votes during election time, to be given spiels about “dignity” and “integrity,” and then to be discarded. At least until the next election rolls around.
There is an irresistible parallel in the film between Governor Morris’s campaign and President Obama’s historic election campaign of 2008. The posters that adorn the walls in the film depict Governor Morris in graphically designed glory with the word, “Believe,” printed on them, almost exactly like Obama’s famous “Hope” poster. Clooney, who directed, produced and starred in the film, stated in September in an interview with Parade Magazine that the film was in preproduction during 2007, before the presidential election, but had to be postponed until “…people were cynical again.”
What an apt time to release this film, when cynicism has crept back into public opinion. Like the politicians it depicts, “The Ides of March” is also manipulating the public to further its own political agenda. But this only serves to make its point stronger.
The performances are masterfully executed — subtle and ambiguous. Each character can be pitied and blamed. Each is a detailed sketch of a person caught in a vortex of difficult moral decisions. Clooney’s constant close-ups of the actors create an intimacy that makes it difficult to pass judgement on the characters. The viewer’s dilemma is exactly parallel to the character’s dilemma — the characters don’t know what to think about their situation, and we don’t know what to think about them.
Ryan Gosling is particularly graceful in his execution. In the final scene, there is a hardened intensity in Gosling’s last lingering look that transcends the film. In that moment, Gosling is no longer Stephen Myers, the press secretary, but a representation of the citizen who has become jaded by the political process, who has abandoned the innocent idealism of the past and who has finally come of age.