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THE IDES OF MARCH

 

Outlet: Mr Video, Nelson Mandela Avenue
Film: The Ides of March
Director: George Clooney
Screenplay: George Clooney; Grant Henslow; Beau Willimon
Players: Ryan Gosling; George Clooney; Philip Seymour Hoffmann; Marisa Tomei; Paul Giamatti
Genre: Political thriller; drama
Rating: ****

The film begins and ends in an empty auditorium, where a young communications campaign manager is testing microphones prior to his Governor’s campaign speech appearance. The empty auditorium is probably a fitting symbol for the world of politics. As he is testing the microphone, he intones snatches of the speech which his boss will deliver with slightly less ringing sincerity the next day: “My religion is – the Constitution of the United States.”  This introduction to Stephen Meyer (Gosling) conveys his idealism, commitment, enthusiasm for the Democratic campaign, and his veneration for his mentor, Senator Mike Morris (Clooney).
Thirty-year-old Meyer learns painfully about the dirty underbelly of politics. At the beginning of the film, however, his idealism is carrying him on the crest of a wave: his ‘niceness’ makes him the darling of the media, with Times journalist Ida Horowicz hanging on his every word, trying to nudge and cajole an enticing snippet of information from him. In the melee of the campaign office, Stephen moves with confidence among crowds of other earnest acolytes and interns. His boss, Paul Zara (Hoffmann), is a grizzled veteran of politics, seemingly conscientious and bristling with integrity. His convictions are trounced only by those of his boss, the Governor himself, who oozes charm, sincerity, and old-fashioned, next-door neighbourly niceness. ‘I like Mike’ splashed across the back of his campaign bus seems to say it all – simply and sincerely.
However, all is not well and all is not what it seems. In this world of smoke and mirrors, the ability to psych oneself into absolute belief is a necessity for survival: Paul strides the world like a Colossus, convinced that he has muscled and manipulated the right influential people; it would seem that the Ohio vote for the Democratic Presidential candidate is critical to influence North Carolina and other states, which theoretically should fall like a house of cards into the lap of the successful nominee.
The dialogue is fast and precise, witty and incisive, initially driving the plotline instead of action. A level of foreknowledge of American politics is needed in order to catch all the nuances, innuendoes, and cynical repartee.
Meyer loves his job; Meyer adores his Governor, firm in the belief that this is the man to introduce real change: ‘He’s the one who will make a difference. He will win,’ he tells Ida. A hard-bitten journalist, Ida’s riposte is significant: ‘He’s a nice guy. Sooner or later he’ll let you down.’
While Paul Zara sallies to see Senator Thompson in order to secure his endorsement and cache of 356 delegates to assure Morris of the Ohio nomination, Meyer is strategising with the Governor, whose charm extends beyond the spotlight but who has a mind of his own and a sharp intellect to hone in political debate. Meyer is arguing the introduction of a two-year conscription period, a move which would be popular with the older voters; its unpopularity with teenagers is irrelevant: as Meyer points out, they are too young to register their protest through a vote.
At this point the plotline, narrow and slow-moving, diverges and the pace of the action speeds up. Meyer injudiciously accepts an invitation to meet Tom Duffy (Giamatti), the senior campaign manager for Morris’s chief opponent, Governor Pullman.  We never meet Pullman; we do not even have a clear idea of his personality or his politics. There is a slighting reference to ‘white paper’, ironic jargon for negative or destructive publicity: Zara is feeding titbits to the press about Pullman’s association with a diamond mine in Liberia.
Duffy’s revelations at the meeting are devastating: he has already secured Senator Thompson and his 356 delegates with a promise that the latter will be made Secretary of State. ‘Ohio is lost. Ohio’s over – it’s been over for weeks.’ Meyer turns down a job offer, citing the reason that Paul is his friend. Duffy, the ultimate cynic, played with superb aplomb by Giamatti, queries, ’Do you want to work for your friend or do you want to work for the President?’ The idea of friendship in such a poisonous environment is given ironic prominence. Later when Meyer is put in a hotspot by Ida, whose blackmail tactics are overt, explicit, he grieves because he thought she was his friend. She offers a smart but cynical reply. Paul, when he fires Stephen, reproves him from the moral high ground: ‘The one thing I value is loyalty: in politics it’s the only currency that counts. Without it, you’re nothing.’ Ironically, Meyer had turned down the job because he regarded Zara, his boss, as a friend; a double irony is that Zara is the one who double-crossed Meyer by leaking the story to the Times journalist in the first place.
Meyer tells Molly Stearns, a twenty-year-old young intern with a powerful Democratic father who is leader of the Democratic National Committee, ‘This is the big league.  It’s mean. When you make a mistake you lose the right to play.’ Ironically, this sentiment is borne out by his own political reversals when, perforce, he moves to the other side to join the Duffy-Pullman ticket and Duffy withdraws the job offer, arguing that ‘The moment you sat down in that chair, I had won. It’s win-win.’ Paul, when he is firing Meyer, intones, ‘You did not make a mistake; you made a choice.’
Meyer sits in his car, as rain pummels the windscreen and the reflection casts mottled shadows on his face. It is the moment of truth for him: that little careless actions can have enormous tragic consequences; that the integrity he had believed to be his guiding star did not exist; that his hero, whom he believed would make a difference, had feet of clay.’ Ironically Meyer’s efforts to save the Senator’s reputation had contributed to his own downfall – but also aids his resurrection.
The plot comes full circle as Meyer, now Morris’ chief campaign manager, is again flattered and beguiled by the ruthless Ida. When he fails to deliver any interesting news for her paper, she whines ‘Aren’t we friends anymore?’ He replies, ‘You’re my best friend, Ida,’ but the irony drips from every word. A huge American flag dominates a stage when Meyer and Zara confront each other as murky silhouettes, another symbolic image to suggest that the political ‘arena’ is well defined as a place for conflict, not friendship. In a shadowed bar, Meyer and Governor Morris meet; in another world this might be two wild cowboys lining up for a shoot-out. They are alone in this deserted place, as if the other customers had scarpered to avoid the fallout. Then the smoke and mirrors are cleared away for a moment to show the ugly reality of politics: pragmatic wheeling and dealing, which in another world would be described as blackmail, bribery – and bullying.

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