This bi-weekly column might soon fall prey to my basest desires, ceasing all pretense of film analysis and devoting itself instead to the cause of Ryan Gosling fandom. When did he become the street fight-resolving, sultry-eyed, feminist hero of our time, and where was I? That said, Gosling, if you’re going to call yourself a feminist, start acting in movies with interesting and strong female characters; The Ides of March is no feminist flick. Gosling is, nonetheless, amazing as Stephen Meyers, a brilliantly talented press secretary for Governor Mike Morris’s (George Clooney) presidential campaign, managed by uncompromising Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
The movie takes place at the end of the Democratic presidential primary in Ohio. Morris is slightly ahead in the polls, but his rival Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell) could easily take the lead. Meyers, though unusually experienced for his 30 years, remains idealistically hopeful about the change offered by Morris. He tells a Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei)—in what the audience is meant to understand as a candid moment—that Morris is “the only one who’s going to actually make a difference in people’s lives.” Truly, Morris-the-candidate appears to be the quintessential liberal fantasy. He declares the Constitution to be his religion, is anti-death penalty and pro-choice, and wants to make college free for everyone. Additionally, when Pullman’s campaign manager (Paul Giamatti) tries to bring Meyers into Pullman’s team, Meyers rejects him, saying, “I don’t have to play dirty anymore, I’ve got Morris.” Morris is truly the candidate of hope, here to free us from our debt, our partisan differences, and dirty Washington politics.
Sound familiar yet? At its core, The Ides of March attempts to speak to the disillusionment the country feels with the Obama presidency. Meyers experiences our enraptured belief in “change” followed by our spirit-crushing fall into the dehumanizing cruelty of the political process. And fall he does. Betrayed (at least in his own eyes) by Zara, Morris, and Horowicz, he spins out into a quest for revenge only to find that the opposition played him for a fool. Faced with the realization the he has misjudged everything—his “friends,” his relationship with intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), and even his own political savvy—he sheds his ideals and works to win back his place in the White House.
Though this film does a decent job voicing the political disappointment many Americans are currently experiencing, the amazing work of Gosling and Hoffman cannot quite redeem it from its glaring problems. Wood’s seductive intern character is the most obvious of the film’s flaws. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say you’ve seen it before. The Ides of March provides an extremely male-centric vision of politics where women exist primarily to serve and to sex the powerful men around them. Lest the viewer not fully grasp this very basic female characteristic, the last shots of the film follow another female intern who, we are meant to understand, will be next. The filmmakers seem to believe that by employing such a cliché scandal they can expand the commentary to encompass politics at large—the movie alludes to the campaigns and failures of Obama, Clinton, Edwards, and Eisenhower. However, conflating cynical politics and female victimization serves to reinforce mentalities that confine the political discourse surrounding women to issues of sexuality.
As a further difficulty, the film’s plot depends upon Zara and Stearns reacting to events in an extreme and irrational manner that does not seem in harmony with the rest of their characters. Zara’s speech on loyalty and his response to what he sees as Meyers’s betrayal makes little sense in the narrative of this film. Zara betrays Meyers because Zara values loyalty. What? Also, if Meyers is as talented as everyone keeps saying he is, it makes no sense for Zara to fire him over next to nothing. I won’t give away what Stearns does, but it is an overreaction of epic proportions and no way in keeping with the driven, sassy character she has been up to this point.
Ultimately, though I cannot say I loved this film, it was by no means a waste of my time. Watching Gosling take Meyers through his transformation is wonderful to behold. Hoffman is obviously fantastic and, since I am more than tired of Clooney’s face, he was perfect for his role. In spite of its flaws, The Ides of March strikes a chord with our current political anxieties, of feeling betrayed though we do not know by who or what exactly. Also, Ryan Gosling!