Let’s forget for a moment about the electoral landscape of reality and turn to Hollywood’s take on our political life. It’s not that Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, the Tea Partiers, Nancy Pelosi, the Wall Street occupiers, and Barney Frank aren’t fun. But George Clooney—full-time actor, sometime political activist—looks more presidential and draws more of a crowd than all of these luminaries put together, and he’s just written, directed, and starred in a movie about modern-day electoral politics. Let’s take a look at his thoughts.
The Ides of March revolves around Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), an idealistic, quietly egocentric 30-year-old hotshot deputy manager for the campaign of Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), who is in a tight race for the Democratic presidential nomination. The campaign has stopped in Ohio for what will perhaps be the determining primary election. There, Stephen is confronted with three problems in quick succession. First is the bold, 20-year-old junior intern on the campaign (Evan Rachel Wood), who has a dark secret related to the supposedly spotless Morris. (No points for guessing what it is because the “secret” has been grabbed straight from the real-life John Edwards campaign of 2008.) Second is a tempting offer from the manager of the rival campaign, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), for Stephen to come work for him and his candidate rather than for Morris. The third problem is that an important U.S. senator (Jeffrey Wright) has decided to switch his support from Morris to Morris’s opponent because a conscientious Morris refuses to promise the senator a Cabinet position in advance. The rest of the movie traces Stephen’s messy attempts to resolve these three eventually interconnected problems.
As a mildly soapy drama about moral ambiguity and personal transformation, The Ides of March plays solidly. In particular, Ryan Gosling turns a masterful performance as Stephen, an unusually charismatic campaign aide who draws people in with his humorous, comfortable, yet confident demeanor. What elevates the performance is Gosling’s ability to portray, slowly and subtly, how Stephen’s knowledge of his own attractiveness undermines him. Professing to be an idealist who acts “for the right reasons,” Stephen is in fact the most self-involved character in the movie; he exists in a pleasantly-constructed world centered on his own specialness. That approach doesn’t work well in a presidential campaign, where you’re supposed to subordinate yourself to the interests of “the man,” or at least “the movement.” As Paul Giamatti’s more self-aware character brusquely, if sympathetically, advises Stephen: “Go into business consulting and be happy.” Stephen doesn’t take that advice, and his subsequent transformation under the pressures of harsh realities forms the movie’s dramatic backbone.
As political drama, however, The Ides of March falters for two reasons. First, even as the movie correctly identifies Stephen’s tragic flaw and its incompatibility with serious political participation—he’s the narcissist in a room where the cause should be everything—the film undermines its own message in the way it portrays the dynamics of a campaign. Everything in the movie is about individuals, not organizations. The fate of Morris’s presidential bid hangs on dramatic interactions and moral choices by Stephen, Morris, and a few others. This is all mesmerizing, but it’s a far cry from the rarely-articulated reality of modern elections, which depend far more on the dull, committed work of huge numbers of ill-paid people. To some degree, the focus on personal drama is inevitable; this is a movie, after all. But Clooney takes it to the extremes. In the first presidential primary debate, for example, the two candidates face each other onstage as their campaign managers glare fiercely at each other from the wings. Not since Gladiator have the political and the personal been so bizarrely intertwined.
Second, and predictably, the film misconstrues the relationship between political ideals and political reality. As Morris, Clooney sums up the movie’s take on the inevitability of politicians compromising their beliefs when he pseudo-profoundly notes, “We keep shifting the lines we draw in the sand, and then the lines disappear.” The problem with such logic is that political compromise is not about shifting lines that must be solidified—it’s about prioritizing. Politics in a pluralist democracy is inherently ambiguous and filled with give and take; the most transformative politicians are those who keep one or two major goals above the fray and then fill in the blanks as they go along. “Ideals versus compromise” is a false dichotomy except in the most extreme circumstances.
What makes the film’s flaws significant is that they reflect and presumably perpetuate three major misconceptions about politics in America today: the cult of the individual over the organization, the ideals-compromise dichotomy, and the notion of politics as inherently morally degrading. If we changed our collective assumptions about these issues, we might be able to perceive our politics more clearly. Specifically, we might not experience such a constant stream of emotional let-downs concerning our politicians. Then Mitt Romney’s current bid to reach out to social conservatives for support might not seem like craven compromise, but rather smart politics in pursuit of the more important goal of securing his party’s presidential nomination. Knowing this, we might give Mitt a small break, granting that he may not be enjoying the process of denying global warming any more than we are enjoying watching him do it. (As an example of the perils of political truthfulness, take a look at Jon Huntsman’s languishing numbers.) And Barack Obama’s success in 2008 might not just be a testament to his personality but also a result of his campaign’s organizational genius. So we might not praise and then damn the president when his supposedly messianic persona failed to meet our own unreasonable expectations. Finally, and maybe most importantly, we might not feel so powerless to control the corruption that does exist in politics. The political arena invites ugly dealing, as all entrenched systems do, but it’s not the whirling ecosystem of inexorable evil that Clooney seems to think it is. It can be affected and even transformed in boring, undramatic ways, through small compromises and systemic reform.