A statue of George Washington sits in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, larger than life and carved in gleaming marble. He's enthroned in Grecian robes, one hand holding a sheathed sword, the other pointing toward heaven. The artist wanted to echo an ancient sculpture of the Greek god Zeus—fitting, perhaps, for a founding father so sanctified by history that he's now revered by some as more demigod than mere mortal.
In life, Washington was renowned for his honesty and integrity. And more than 200 years after his death, he's become a veritable secular saint—a symbol of what America could and should be, a statesman untainted by the baseness and cynicism of politics, a man forever pure and ideal. And yet when you learn more about Washington, he's perhaps not as pure or ideal as we imagine. There was deep ambition hidden beneath that marble brow; passion, a thread of temper, even a hint of duplicity. We think of him as the man who chopped down a cherry tree and said, "I cannot tell a lie." It's in stark contrast to the founding father's family motto: Exitus acta probat. The end justifies the means.
Fast-forward to a fictional present, when Gov. Mike Morris (D-Pa.) is locked in a rock-'em, sock-'em primary race with Sen. Pullman of Arkansas. Morris has a narrow delegate lead, and no wonder. The man is handsome and eloquent, buoyed by creative ideas and impassioned ideals.
But in the hotels, bars and makeshift campaign offices where the real political work is done, ideals hide like dust bunnies underneath the desks. Politics ain't pretty, after all. It's a dirty, bare-knuckle fight. And Morris has at his disposal one of the scrappiest corner men in the business: spin doctor Stephen Myers.
Stephen's experienced, savvy and ruthless. He'll smear the other guy with innuendo and broker backroom deals to get what he wants. And yet there's a spark of idealism in him too—a belief that Morris really can be a game-changer—a rare politician who means what he says and is willing to back it up. Stephen, for the sake of Morris, embraces exitus acta probat.
"I'll do or say anything if I believe in it," he says. "But I have to believe in the cause."
But is his a cause worth believing in? Is Morris an honorable man? Do secrets lurk beneath the candidate's chiseled-stone brow? And what if the end doesn't justify the means? What happens then?
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
"The story is about ambition," said George Clooney, who directed and starred in The Ides of March, to Newsweek. "At what price do we sell our souls?"
That central question lies at the heart of this story. Whatever faults I touch on later in this review, I can't fault the film's taut artistry or provocative premise. I can't fault it for forcing us to seriously think about not only the corruption surrounding us in the real world, but the corruption that stirs in our own souls. By negative example, and the dire consequences it awakes, we cringe, we blink, we're sobered.
This is a serious think piece, unkind in many ways to our democratic process. But that which does not kill you only makes you stronger, we're told. So the lessons learned in The Ides of March should (can) serve to strengthen our resolve to press on, making things better as we go.
The United States is still a deeply religious country, and national polls suggest that it'd be nearly impossible for an atheist to get elected president. Of course, if the atheist looked like George Clooney, well, the American people might be willing to overlook a little godlessness:
"I'm not a Christian," Morris calmly states during a debate, rattling off a slew of other religions he's not affiliated with. "What I believe in is called the Constitution of the United States of America." When someone asks him what he believes happens after death, he says he doesn't know for sure. "If the senator does," he adds, "maybe he should be president. I would vote for him." He tells the watching public, "If I'm not religious enough for you, don't vote for me."
Paul, Stephen's boss and a consummate strategist, tells a reporter that he's confident Morris will get the democratic nomination. But he admits that an upset wouldn't completely surprise him, quipping that it's entirely possible St. Gabriel will send the four horsemen of the apocalypse to raid the ballot boxes so that the more religious Pullman would win.
A woman, looking to get an abortion, says she can't go to her father for money because their family's Catholic. We see a funeral service at a church. "With all due respect," a grieving father tells the priest, "I don't accept this judgment [from God]." At the end of a speech, a politician says, "God bless you, and God bless the United States of America."
Stephen hooks up with a young intern named Molly, and they have at least two sexual encounters. At first she says she's 20, but later insinuates she might still be in her teens. And Stephen jokes about Ohio's lax child endangerment laws. On one occasion we see them getting dressed afterwards. The other scene is more explicit: Stephen, naked, is on top of Molly, and we see sexual movements. (The sequence is designed to show how distracted Stephen is by campaign footage on the television.)
Stephen isn't the first person to sleep with Molly on the Morris campaign trail. It's later revealed that Morris also (who is married and has a young child) slept with the girl. Molly later learns she's pregnant with Morris' child.
A reporter jokes that her spouse would be OK with infidelity if it meant a big scoop.
Molly's pregnancy is a known to just one other person: Stephen. She and he seem to believe that abortion is the only option available to her, and Stephen raids the campaign's petty cash fund and his own bank account to come up with enough money for the procedure. He drives her to the clinic and leaves her there. And while Molly is on the verge of tears as she waits—which could be interpreted as grief or fear or second thoughts—she does apparently go through with it. We see a nurse give her two vials of pills.
Molly then kills herself with the drugs that evening. Stephen goes into her hotel room and finds her on the floor.
While stating that he doesn't believe in the death penalty, Morris admits that if someone murdered a member of his family, he'd hunt down the murderer and kill him. When pressed on this apparent inconsistency, Morris explains that, in the personal scenario, "I would commit a crime for which I'd happily go to jail." He adds, "Society has to be better than the individual."
Crude or Profane Language
Nearly 70 f-words and 25 s-words. We also hear "a‑‑," "h‑‑‑," obscene terms for male anatomy and vulgar terms for female anatomy. God's name is abused a half-dozen times, half of the time in combination with "d‑‑n." Jesus' name is abused four or five times, once in combination with the f-word.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Campaign workers spend time in bars and drink frequently (beer and mixed drinks mostly, it seems). Paul smokes and jokes about getting his hands on some quaaludes. Molly invites Stephen to "have a drink with the worker bees" and says that when she had an illicit encounter with someone, she wasn't "that drunk."
Other Negative Elements
The Ides of March brims with "other negative elements"—elements that, the film suggests, are endemic to politics:
When Stephen's given a bit of "white paper"—sleaze about another candidate—he promptly releases it. "I don't care if it's true," he tells a colleague. "I just want to hear him denying it." It's standard operating procedure, we're told. Morris ends up lamenting the lines in the sand he's drawn during the campaign—no attack ads, for instance. He at first refuses to offer a hated politician a political appointment in exchange for his votes, then goes through with it. When Stephen takes the money out of petty cash, he orders his lieutenant to not record it.
Backstabbing is also part of the game, as is intense manipulation. Even as the politicians give voice to soaring principles, they and the people surrounding them operate on the most basic, most pragmatic, most cynical levels imaginable, in everything from policy outlines to media spin to "romantic" relationships.
The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest—
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men …
From George Washington to Julius Caesar to … Mike Morris. Mark Antony's lines are taken from William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, shortly after his boss has been assassinated by Brutus and his comrades (on, you'll remember, the Ides of March). Antony speaks with eloquent irony here: Brutus is not an honorable man, certainly not in Antony's opinion. Caesar is the true hero. Yet for those who watch the play, there's doubt. Can we trust the motives of anyone onstage? Who, exactly, is truly honorable?
George Clooney's film The Ides of March is likewise about honor. It's about integrity and honesty, even though none of its characters contain much more than a sliver of such qualities. These would be all honorable men, in Antony's honeyed sarcasm. And by admitting as much, the film calls into question our whole "honorable" political game.
"It really isn't a political film," Clooney told Newsweek. "If it was set on Wall Street, it would be the exact same characters doing the exact same thing. Politics just raises the stakes so high."
He's only half right. Clooney's movie is not political from the perspective of someone trying to push viewers to embrace a given ideology or governing party. Morris' political mores appear to bear similarities to Clooney's own … but Morris is in some respects the film's most loathsome creation.
It is political in this sense: The Ides of March, refusing to weep over our democratic process, exactly, or even fully critique it, does hold it up for examination, showing us its built-in failings and flaws. By extension, it reveals the failings of those involved. It says, simply, This is what it is. People will do almost anything to get into office, or to push their guy into office. Exitus acta probat.
Personally, I'm something of an idealist. I believe that most politicians get into the biz because they love their country and they want to make a difference. I'd like to think that presidential campaigns aren't typically this sordid. But at the same time, I can recognize the cautions built into the tale. Cautions, not solutions, I should note. We're given no direction to go for answers here. And that makes this a deeply cynical bit of moviemaking—but perhaps fairly so. Inserting more than enough cultural and moral cringe-points (obscene language, a sex scene, an abortion) to make sure we'll never, ever think of the movie itself as perfect or pure, it's job is to merely—emphatically—tell us our political system is just as soiled.