Set in Ohio, USA about a Democrat primary campaign in which Mike Morris (George Clooney) is the Presidential candidate, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is a press secretary, and Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the campaign manager. Morris’s rival Tom Duffy is played by Paul Gianmatti. In the cause of promoting a Democrat victory these guys are prepared to lie and manipulate and cheat. Duffy embarrasses Morris by leaking a meeting with him about coming over to his side when Myers is supposed to be a loyal supporter of Morris. Then Zara gets kicked out of the campaign. Myers is involved with Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) who is Catholic and will get an abortion. Who is the father? At the end Myers comes out of it with ideals shot to pieces but career prospects enhanced.
We do not see any Republicans in this film and we don’t need to. The Republicans are merely the ideological foe, whereas the Democrats struggling for success are bitter rivals. Ides of March is partly scripted by Clooney from a play Farragut North and like in other plays brought to the screen, there is a solid script that can give the actors convincing dialogue. Interestingly, for me, the real drama of the film does not come from the ideological debate, but from the human stories behind the political show. It’s almost like a Potenkin facade, that there is smooth rhetoric and polished delivery to those requiring to be won over and impressed, and behind this there are issues of loyalty, truthfulness and trustworthiness. If it’s all for the greater cause, are all the compromises and betrayals worth it. A cynic might say no, given that when Democrats achieve power they cannot do much since they are constantly frustrated by Republicans in Congress. When Morris gets into debate and takes questions, you can be sure that these arguments are his own views. He argues against capital punishment by insisting that society must be better than the individuals need for revenge. He says all the right liberal things about abortion, fighting terrorism, and military adventure abroad (eliminate dependence on fossil fuels). He is impressive and yet keeps a compromising secret and is prepared to jettison the loyal Zara who has demonstrated the past efficiency of loyalty. Ryan Gosling as Myers is a self serving weasel. His is a riveting performance at the centre of the film. His vanity is stoked by Molly and he pays for her abortion and learns to sacrifice personal relationships in the interests of career advancement. He is good at outwitting his more experienced seniors and we understand he will do anything to get Morris and himself closer to the White House. With Democrats like these, who needs Republicans? It’s not exactly a good advert for the progressive party of social justice.
A big problem I have with the film is that it gives no good roles to women. They are peripheral to the main political games played by the men. Molly is a glamorous sidekick to Morris and Myers, she does comparatively menial work. The women have conventionally supportive roles. Morris’s wife looks like a younger Hilary Clinton and is an ego prop for her husband. Marisa Tomei plays another reliable cliche, the cynical hard-bitten journalist who is prepared to embarrass Myers in the promotion of her own career.
I’m puzzled by Clooney’s readiness seemingly to undermine the image of Democrat hopefuls. There are intelligent and capable people but uncaring of the moral corrosiveness of their tactics. I was amused by the confrontation of Morris and Myers in a restaurant kitchen, the stereotypical ‘gunfight at O.K. corral’ scene as two deadly egos clash, that seems obligatory in this type of film. There seems to be an agreement that the game undermines moral values but the greater goal is success. This nastiness is enjoyably dramatic but leaves me tempted to be dismissive of the whole business, but then the Republicans would be much worse.