Stephen (Ryan Gosling) is a young, ruthless and wan campaign officer working under worldly manager Paul (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) on the trail for charismatic Democrat governor Mike Morris (George Clooney). The team is working on delivering Morris the title of prime Democrat presidential candidate. As is often the case in the US presidential race, the players, odds and stakes are determined long before the public is aware of them and by bizarre shifts in the competition, huge decisions, are often left to the voting public of one single state, in this case, Ohio. Scheming grandly out of a pop-up HQ of suits, hotel rooms, handshakes and monitored mobile phones, Stephen receives a call from opponent campaigner Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), to set up a meeting that will set in motion a chain of rumour, sabotage, scandal and revenge.
There are not a few elements of film noir in this dark, brooding tale. All visual cues aside, the presence of a winter-coated, pragmatic protagonist, shark-like journalist masquerading as a friend (an on-form Marisa Tomei), forward-facing meetings on park benches and shadowy bars, and the doomed femme fatale played by Evan Rachel Wood very quietly show The Ides of March to be an almost perfectly noir genre film. The city is not a geographical landscape, but one made of people, haunting various buildings and corridors with the attachment of an anemone-fixed clown fish. Gosling’s Stephen is pragmatic and idealistic, and without the classic voice-over narration of some Bogart P.I., his introspection and intentions are evident. This is a man so enamoured by big politics that he alone is not cynical about it, but going the way of all noir, his vigilantism and sense of justice become confused.
The political profession is a cutthroat business: there are few other jobs wherein one’s personal life and most intimate views are criticised so closely or publicly. There is zero separation between work and life here, and even as campaign manager, Stephen is held accountable for his personal decisions, as his most innocent mistakes are both noticed and punished. Morris himself is unable to escape open scrutiny of his most intimate self – his inability to subscribe fully to religion. This kind of press carte blanche leaves a wake of emotional wreckage that is often irreparable. The Ides of March describes the human costs of political agency in grandiose terms, describing the creeping manner in which the job first comes home from the office and then becomes the life of its employees. We’re talking about marriages, births, deaths, murders, all for politics – a thing not always synonymous with ideals.
After disbelief has been suspended, many of the policies Mike Morris lays out as his platform sound alarmingly convincing. I say alarming, because of their veritable obviousness – how has nobody yet tried to milk the angle that to end war we just need to rid ourselves of the demand for foreign oil? This could easily be marketed as an end of conflict and step towards environmentalism to the left, and to the right – the simple disentanglement of the US from all its woes in the middle East, with the added bonus of disempowering those nations it wishes to get the upper hand on. The progressiveness of this platform, whilst wildly desirable and therefore improbable, serves to highlight how easily policy can be sidelined in favour of strategy.
It’s a struggle to speak highly enough of the calibre of performances in The Ides of March. Paul Giamatti as bitter Republican campaign shark Tom Duffy and Seymour Hoffman’s doggedly above-board campaign veteran Paul effectively pit two actors of a unique and exclusive calibre, equals and peers in so many ways, into opposing sides of the Ohio competition. They are a balanced, formidable pair, whose casting immediately portends of a perpetual stalemate. How can there ever be a winner in the battle of Giamatti and Hoffman? This is yet another spectacular performance from Gosling, a master of the steely and reserved. Even as all Stephen’s loyalties and efforts begin to shatter around him, Gosling expresses each shock as a controlled implosion, his face crystallising into an ever more closed fortress. Despite this shuttered look, Stephen’s options are known to the audience who anticipate his limited palette of ‘moves’ with exhilaration.
Films of the political thriller genre are often difficult to follow or attempt to describe recent political history with superfluous poetics. The Ides of March is surprisingly easy to follow – there is a reasonably large introduction of characters at the outset, but each acts in such a compelling manner as to quickly become remarkable. The intrigue is tempered by urgency and each character is written with such distinct reality. Particularly lucid in the dialogue was the differences in age and behaviour between 20-year-old femme fatale and Republican heiress Molly and the more experienced, 30-year-old Stephen.
The “Ides of March” itself, is actually a phrase describing the fifteenth day of the Roman calendar. We remember it now as part of a macabre line from Shakespeare’s brilliant Julius Caesar: “beware the Ides of March”. The line is spoken by a (presumably toothless and impoverished, as is often the case with this type of omen) soothsayer to Caesar himself, his portent later being fulfilled when the unfortunate emperor is unexpectedly shanked by conspirators Cassius and Brutus on the 15th.
Backstabbing and treachery are dominant plot points in The Ides of March. The film illustrates the complexity with which information sharing can become an ethical issue. Certainly in politics, particular party members cannot be meeting with the opposition or unsavoury types, and it can be very unclear to whom exactly unannounced matters can be reported. Stephen suffers both for having shared too much information with those he shouldn’t, for not reporting it fast enough, and yet later survives the fallout of his actions simply by having not given everything away. One cannot help but smirk at the release of The Ides of March during the term of an Australian Prime Minister which has generated more political analysis of the justice and consequences of ‘backstabbing’ than in all our short governmental history. I’ve no doubt this barely factored into the production of the film, but one has to wonder whether there is a widespread public sentiment that deems politicians incapable of sticking to their ideals. The Ides of March certainly echoes this concern.
Perhaps the Ides of March's greatest feature is the way that it gets the audience on side with different characters at different time, and slowly, inevitably, abandoning policy as a reason for doing so. Any presentation of a potential leader's policy should, really automatically, inspire some kind of thoughtfulness in us that takes into consideration both our own, and our civic interests. Opinions may differ on what is needed, but most of us will utilise our experiences, knowledge and personal preferences to decide what we think is best. That is democracy - a varied public with differing views delivering a majority decision simply by putting forward the ideas or groups they represent. This surely requires that those working in the campaign process do not sabotage candidates based on their personal encounters with them - that's the job of the public. I wonder how many of us would vote or not vote for a candidate whose personality, private life or past had so effected our pride that we wanted revenge over them, no matter how good a leader they would be. I wonder, even if we liked his Rome, would we still stab Caesar?