Ides of March is an apt title for a political movie dealing as it does with the shenanigans required to become a presidential candidate in 21st century America. Symbolic, as the date is, for the day when Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. The film shows that over 2,000 years later nothing in politics has really changed. The backstabbing in politics continues apace (even if nowadays the term is metaphorical rather than literal). As with Caesar, the cruellest blow will always come from a friend.
The classical references in the movie don’t stop there however. The action is set in the run up to the Ohio Primary between the two remaining candidates still in the running to lead the Democratic Party in the next presidential race. As a result, the story is set in Cincinnati, a town named after the Roman politician Cincinnatus. In Ancient times Cincinnatus was a byword for an honourable and decent politician, who ruled for the benefit of the people and not for his own glory and power.
And at first the film leads us to believe that in Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) we have a charming and charismatic politician with strong moral integrity, seemingly refusing to horse trade to get into the White House. Mike Morris is, if you like, a present-day Cincinnatus. For starters, even a seasoned political campaigner and the “best media mind in the country” like Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) believes in him. Stephen is convinced that Mike Morris is the only one who is actually going to make a difference in people’s lives. Ida (Marisa Tomei), the New York Times journalist, is, not surprisingly, more prosaic. Mike Morris is a politician. As such, she concludes, he is bound to let you down sooner or later.
However the audience is initially led to side with Stephen’s view of the Governor. Not only is Stephen a well-valued political consultant, but we also like him. This is helped in no small measure by Ryan Gosling’s charming and witty performance. Stephen too seems to be a man of principle, unlike his boss, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Paul Zara believes in winning. He will do or say anything to win. Stephen admits that although he may well do and say anything, he has to believe in it first. He has to believe in the cause. Over the course of the film this idealism is stripped away from him, as he gradually does do and say anything in order to ensure his own political survival.
As for the character of Mike Morris, he’s a decorated war veteran who protested against the Second Gulf War. As a politician, he has solid political success behind him, even managing the nigh impossible feat of balancing his state’s budget. In fact a lot of the policies Clooney’s character advocates in the movie would presumably be music to the ear of your average Democratic voter in real life.
Clooney is an ideal fit for the role of Mike Morris. He exudes exactly what most modern politicians in our media-savvy world would give their right arm to be. He’s effortlessly suave, intelligent, charming and articulate. That most of what he says and the ideas behind it may not necessarily be his but those of his able spin doctor, Stephen Meyers, is apparent however from the very beginning.
In the very first scene we see Stephen mouth the words the Governor is later to say in that day’s debate. It’s fitting then that it’s the character of Stephen that both opens and ends the movie. The film seems to imply that it is, after all, these backroom boys that are pulling the political strings rather than the politicians we vote for.
That nothing is too petty when it comes to making your opponent look bad is also clear from the start. In the run up to the primary debate Stephen asks for the podiums to be made taller merely so that Mike Morris’s opponent, who is shorter than him, will look like a hobbit. In this media imbued world Stephen realises that how you look will invariably count for more than what you say. This is after all a world where the political message gets lost in a sea of media manipulation, political mud raking, negative ads, black ops and misusing social media to your own advantage.
The film also looks at the duplicitous relationship that politicians have with the press. Both need each other but will invariably use each other ruthlessly for their own ends when necessary, as Ida does to Stephen. In the film we get a sense of how journalists cosy up to politicians to get scoops, and how politicians use journalists to get their own version of the truth rolled out. Not surprisingly it is the journalist Ida who sums up the situation rather neatly. They may seem friends but in essence they give her what she wants and in return she writes them better stories.
And there’s a lot at stake. Whoever wins Ohio could tip the balance either way in the race for the presidential nomination. The only way to offset this is to win support from the Democratic senator for North Carolina, Franklin Thompson (Jeffrey Wright) and his 365 pledged delegates. It is here we see how politics really works in America, as the film gives an insight into the horse trading among politicians and the consequent scant regard for the democratic process. Who ends up as the presidential candidate has seemingly less to do with the electoral process and more about which candidate can offer the best prize to any political honcho whose support is required. When running for president, it would seem it is less about using democratic means to get your man in office but more about using any means possible. There’s a great scene which symbolises this when we see Paul and Stephen discuss what to do now that their opponents have gained the upper hand. Their heated discussion is played against the massive backdrop of a gigantic Stars and Stripes flag. On the other side of the flag Mike Morris is giving a speech that has less to do with the political reality then what these two men are deciding backstage.
And it’s a clever touch to make the film about Democratic politicians rather than the Republicans. Portraying Republicans as ruthless individuals who would do anything to win would have been by far the more obvious option. As one of the characters points out that’s the reason why they have won so many elections. And given Clooney’s politics off camera, by choosing Democrats as the protagonists, it makes it easier for the audience to initially accept that Mike Morris is the good guy.
The audience are fooled into thinking we have got the measure of the man when Stephen and Paul try and get Mike Morris to agree to Thompson’s conditions for his endorsement of Mike Morris’s nomination. Morris refuses. Paul tries to persuade him that it’s just a question of maths. After all, if he gets the endorsement from Thompson, then the presidential nomination is his. Mike Morris is adamant that he is never going to agree, even if it means he will now need to go on and win the Ohio Primary. The price he would have to pay – to make someone Secretary of State who is totally unsuitable for the job – is too high. We admire his refusal and his determination to opt for the more difficult option and try and win Ohio, thereby ultimately risking losing the presidential nomination all together. As he later tells his wife, he keeps drawing lines in the sand only to then have to move them again by agreeing to fundraisers, negative ads and union deals. Thompson is just one line in the sand he refuses to move.
Consequently we are the more taken aback when the penny finally drops that the Governor hasn’t as much integrity as we were first led to believe. We get to see his true colours in the kitchen scene. Placed between a rock and a hard place by Stephen, the Governor’s charm and affability are stripped away and we see the Governor in his true light. It’s not a pretty sight and we realise Ida is right. Mike Morris is yet another politician who has let us down.
In this film everyone seems to double cross everyone. As Ohio is an open primary this means anyone can vote for the candidates not just democrats. With Mike Morris seen as more of a threat than his fellow democrat opponent, it is clearly not a hard sell for the opposing team to get Republicans out to cross over temporarily and vote for Morris’s opponent so that Morris is defeated. Their campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) has no qualms about this. Determined for his man to win at all costs, he also goes on to stich up Paul Zara and in a rather Machiavellian way, Stephen. Stephen is dumbfounded that he is capable of ruining his life with such indifference. For Tom however it’s just part and parcel of politics where the end always seems to justify the means.
Paul then double crosses Stephen with the implicit support of the Governor; Stephen and the Governor go on to double cross Paul; Thomson double crosses first Paul and Mike Morris and then Tom Duffy: Ida double crosses Stephen and Stephen returns the favour. Of course it’s the little people at the bottom that are collateral damage in all this. In the movie it’s an intern, Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) who pays the highest price having, as Stephen puts it, “fucked up”. In the big league, he tells her, when you make a mistake, you lose the right to play. Ultimately Molly is soon replaced by another intern and the political wheels keep moving.
The ultimate double cross however is when having been played by the system, Stephen plays the system in turn and proves to be more adept then anyone – beating Paul, Ida and ultimately the Governor at their own game. His leverage over the Governor is also the best quote from the film: “You broke the only rule in politics, you can start a war, you can lie, you can cheat, you can bankrupt the country but you can’t fuck the interns.” Although undoubtedly true for Anglo-Saxon countries such as the States and the UK, I’m not sure how well this theory works in countries such as France and Italy.
By the end of the film it is Stephen who is pulling all the strings. His prize for all this – at least for the time being – is Paul Zara’s job, but with it comes the cold realisation that there is no integrity in politics after all. Ironically the film ends with Stephen about to go on air to talk about Thompson’s endorsement of Mike Morris thereby ending the race to be presidential candidate in Mike Morris’s favour. Whilst waiting to be interviewed, he hears via his earpiece Mike Morris claim that Thompson – a man he privately despises – has brought integrity back to the race and that “integrity matters”. In modern politics this film clearly shows it doesn’t.