Early in the superbly-acted political thriller, The Ides of March, Governor and Presidential hopeful Mike Morris (George Clooney) remarks in a debate that he is neither a practicing religious person nor an atheist; rather, he “believes in the Constitution.” The political platitude perpetuates the popular notion that it is only the government’s job to protect people’s freedoms. On the surface, the sentiment that only job-functional responsibilities matter is attractive in the sense of avoiding a theocracy or big government, but we’re soon left to ask ourselves whether faith in the Constitution is enough to make our lawmakers moral people, and, if not, whether a discontinuity between the public persona and the private person matters. Can a person be perfectly lawful, but still untrustworthy? If so, what transcends constitutional law in terms of accountability?
Idealistic campaign aide Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) believes in Governor Morris. He’s the one that’s going to bring the changes that will make America a better place. Morris appears to have it all: the ideological platform, the endearing diplomatic tools, JFK good looks, and the rhetorician’s witty resolve. Perhaps most attractive to Stephen is that his boss seems determined to rise above the typical political compromises that are made in order to win a campaign. Governor Morris, on the whole, seems true…complete.
The film centers on an upcoming Ohio primary. If Morris wins Ohio’s delegates, he is almost assured of winning the democratic nomination—and the presidency. But with the stakes high, the moral fortitude of Morris’s campaign is put to its toughest test when the other campaign competing for the democratic nomination is willing to use dirty tactics. With so much idealistic weight placed on getting Morris into office, no moral imperative trumps taking any means necessary to win the campaign—particularly with the supposed betterment of the people hanging in the balance.
Unlike his campaign-managing colleague Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and political nemesis Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), Stephen seems to have a purity about him; he’s been untainted by the political process. Far from jaded, he believes nothing bad can happen when a person is pursuing what is good. Yet, Stephen’s naiveté is short-lived because he quickly learns that he cannot trust political opponents, allies, or reporters. What unfolds is a mess of lasciviousness, secrecy, backstabbing, adultery, blackmail, hypocrisy, extortion, and a death that is anything but accidental. Governor Morris plays a prominent role in nearly all of the behind-the-scenes chaos. When Stephen’s picture of the Governor as the embodiment of America’s cure is proven delusional, he is forced to play the game.
The Ides of March is a dark moral fable that may be unoriginal, but involves themes that are timeless, and in this film, they’re far from boring. Unconcerned with how we wish the political sphere functioned, The Ides of March looks unflinchingly at the way things are—at the rampant corruption that often accompanies the pursuit of political power.
Ultimately, though, the film’s Face/Off style movie poster embodies the most interesting theme. The end of the film has the triumphant-but-scandalized Stephen campaign-managing for Morris. A sickening realization appears to wash over him as he overhears a clip of Morris exclaiming “integrity matters” to a crowd of unsuspecting supporters. Now part of Morris’s hypocrisy, Stephen’s public projection of himself and the Governor is incongruent with their private behavior. It is not just that the ends don’t justify the means, but also that the person one wishes to be cannot cover up the person one is without the collateral damage of identity crisis. We all know that personal integrity involves a wholeness—or completeness—of moral character and personhood. Indeed, “integrity matters.” But the question remains: whose integrity? which authenticity?