Beware— 'The Ides of March'

George Clooney likes politically themed movies.  And he has done some fine ones in the past  (see Good Night, and Good Luck).  And this particular movie, just released, is set in northern Kentucky and Cinci,  Kentucky being George’s home turf.    The scenario is plausible, the setting is a primary (finally a movie that has good timing), and the cast is absolutely an A list cast.   Furthermore the plot is tight, and it has several twists and turns.   What’s not to like?  Well frankly, almost all of the persons in the story itself, who range from arrogant to conniving to cowardly to sinister, to positively wicked.  Welcome to politics as we know it ( in the dictionary the word politics is now filed under the word ‘dirty’ as a synonym).  For an hour and 38 minutes we follow the trail of a young bright up and coming campaign staffer for one Governor Morris of Pennsylvania and the questions which keep popping into one’s head is—- Do I like any of these people, why should I care about them, and are these really the kinds of people we end up voting for?

Let’s talk about the cast first—- George Clooney, up and comer Ryan Gosling (see the review of ‘Drive’ earlier on this blog), Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Woods as the young staffer that ‘Steven’ (.e. Gosling) falls for.  Gosling is once again excellent and as in the movie ‘Drive’ we have lots of close camera shots of him. The story really revolves around him, and his decision-making good and bad.  In this movie at least he gets to talk, quite a good deal, unlike in ‘Drive’.  The real stroke of brilliance in casting is pitting Giamatti vs.  Hoffman as rival campaign managers, roles they fill well and play to the hilt.  We could have used more tete a tete from them.   This is indeed a male dominated movie, with both Woods and Tomei playing lesser, but nonetheless effective roles.  We could have used more from them.

On the whole Clooney’s directing is very good, and his acting is even better,  though considering the view of the candidate he plays (he’s a pro-choice Democrat who is neither Christian nor Muslim nor Jew nor Atheist, his real religion is he believes in the U.S. Constitution; he is for weening ourselves off of foreign oil by promoting alternative sources of cleaner energy), one suspects it’s type casting to a certain degree— Clooney is playing himself if he was running for some office.

Full marks to the stylish work of the cinematographer, as this movie is worth watching just for the use of light and shadow and nuance and color.  It is no accident so many scenes are in darkness or shades of gray, just like the behind the scenes dirty politics that are going on.  Furthermore, the film is set in winter, perhaps late winter, but nonetheless not spring— heading for the Ides of March in chilly Cinci on the river.

So why that title?  Perhaps you know Shakespeare and behind that the actual story of Julius Caesar who was indeed killed on the Ides of March.  But the story of Caesar is the story of assassinating a man whom people were sure longed to be king, even Emperor.   There is no such assassination  forthcoming in this film, just a threatened character assassination.

What one learns along the way however is that the quality valued above all others on the campaign trail is neither truth nor integrity nor high moral ideals, but rather just loyalty.  Loyalty through thick and thin.  Loyalty through lies and cheating. Loyalty over truth and integrity.   You see this film really is  au courant.  It speaks of and too the ethos of our nation today, where the civic religion is stronger than the sacred religion,  where ‘just win baby’ is the motto, over ‘it matters how you play the game’, where a man who is cynical about God and the Christian faith can get elected on the basis of moxy and savvy and slick talk and above all ‘a can do’ attitude.   Some movies are morality plays, others, especially ones about politics, are immorality plays, and that is what we have in this film.  The marvel is that we care at all about these people.  A plague on both their houses.

If it is true in this campaign season that America gets the candidates we deserve, then now is the winter of our discontent, our dirty politics mirror our dirty souls.  This film is well worth seeing just because it gives us a chance to take a good hard look at ourselves in the mirror.  It has an R rating due to the ‘F’ word showing up so frequently,  and is not ‘family friendly’.  But then, our culture is no longer very family friendly, having managed to redefine the words marriage and family to  suit our new standards of what counts as moral or immoral.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robert-Moore/1515739436 Robert Moore

    The closer politics get to the people the “dirtier” they get. The more distant they get the more sedate they appear.

    Just read up at the political campaigns when our country was first formed, look at the actual fist fights that broke out, the yellow journalism written and the grossly caricatured depictions of opposing candidates.

    When the populace in general lose interest in the process, or actually believe that politics should be left to the “ruling class” then there is a much more benign view of their affairs.

    Right now people are invested in their personal points of view so passions are blazing.

    Politics has NEVER been “clean” nor wholesome. It’s a messy system but it beats a monarchy and is more responsive than a dictatorship.

  • Anonymous

    I think I mostly agree with this. But there is something to be said for a benevolent monarch. At least he can get things done quickly in a pinch.

  • Anonymous

    “What one learns along the way however is that the quality valued above all others on the campaign trail is neither truth nor integrity nor high moral ideals, but rather just loyalty. Loyalty through thick and thin. Loyalty through lies and cheating. Loyalty over truth and integrity. You see this film really is au courant. It speaks of and too the ethos of our nation today, where the civic religion is stronger than the sacred religion, where ‘just win baby’ is the motto, over ‘it matters how you play the game’, where a man who is cynical about God and the Christian faith can get elected on the basis of moxy and savvy and slick talk and above all ‘a can do’ attitude.”

    I see a lot of parallels between governmental politics and church politics where even in some of our churches the religion that is favored is civic over sacred. We idolize results and so when we lobby for our positions or favorite person on the basis of the same moxie, savvy and slick talk referenced above, we get what we get. No wonder we don’t do any better at the election booth. We’re not doing so well in our churches. In some cases, our churches are just a reflection of the larger culture.

  • http://www.facebook.com/greg.garrett2 Greg Garrett

    Excellent review, Ben. I think the movie is very much worth seeing, despite its relentless downward spiral. If movies reflect our hopes and fears–and you and I have spent years exploring this idea–then Ides represents our hope that a good person can be elected, and our fears that the system does not permit it.

    Which is to say that we do not permit it.

    It is indeed about our civic religion, not real religion, and I’d venture to say that a truly moral Muslim, Christian, Jew–or atheist–would make different decisions than the characters in this film.

    At least I hope they would.

    All best–

    Greg


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