Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Ides of March

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

This 2011 film is based on a play called Farragut North, written by Beau Willimon. He is the man who brought House of Cards to Netflix, and the same cynicism toward American politics in that TV series is present in this movie.
 Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is a media expert working for the campaign to elect Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney, also the director of the film) to the presidency. His job deals with making the candidate look good for the press and the public; thus, his specialty centers on image, how the person running for office presents himself or herself. For Stephen, the message will not be heard if it isn’t packaged well. They are in Ohio for the Democratic Party primary. Morris comes off as a smart, progressive politician, who believes in clean energy, cracking down on concentrated wealth, and is against the death penalty because, even though he might want revenge if his wife was killed, feels that the law must be held to a higher standard than the individual. Stephen tells journalist Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) that he actually believes in Morris, that the man can change lives, and must be elected. He later makes his philosophy clear to Morris when he says that, “I will do or say anything if I believe in it. But I have to believe in the cause.” So, because, as he tells Ida, he has drunk Morris’ Kool-Aid, and it tastes “delicious,” we know right from the start that Stephen is willing to play the nasty game of political campaigning to achieve a lofty goal. As an example of his plotting, he tells one of the staff that he wants to play up the rumor about Morris’ opponent, Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell), being involved in diamond mines in Liberia. Stephen knows that even if it isn’t true he wants to see Pullman receive bad publicity just by denying the charge.

At the debate between the two candidates, Stephen and his boss, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) meet Pullman’s campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). Duffy compliments Stephen by saying he is the brains of the outfit, to which Paul responds by noting Stephen may have the brains but he “has the balls.” As it turns out, we discover that Stephen is no slouch in the ballsy department. Duffy also says he might have to “steal” Stephen from the Morris camp, which is a foreboding of future events. Paul goes to North Carolina to meet with Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), assuming that the latter will sway delegates pledged to him to vote for Morris and assure the nomination. But, Thompson is reluctant to commit. At a group meeting with Morris, Stephen gets a call from Duffy who wants to meet with him.
It is at this point that the title of the movie becomes significant, since it refers to the day on which Brutus, along with his co-conspirators, killed Julius Caesar. The movie presents the audience with a number of betrayals. Stephen is not supposed to meet with the opposing campaign members. He knows this to be the case, and leaves a message with Paul that he needs to talk with him. But, he meets with Duffy anyway at a bar where no one will see them. Duffy says that Pullman will get Thompson’s support in exchange for appointing him Secretary of State. Thompson, thus, breaks his prior promise to support Morris for his own personal gain. Duffy tells Stephen that he is with the losing candidate and should switch to Pullman’s campaign. He says because Ohio is an open primary state, the Pullman campaign will convince independents and Republicans to vote for Pullman as the lesser of two evils. Stephen is taken aback by the tactics, but Duffy says they have to be more like the Republicans, who are meaner and tougher, and that Democrats have lost because they didn’t want to get into the mud with the elephants. Duffy portrays politics as a dirty business, no matter what side one is on. He also flatters Stephen by telling him he makes his job look, on the “outside,” so easy, that people fear him, but love him for his ability. Duffy says that Stephen has the most valuable ability in politics by winning respect through making people mistake their fear for love. In essence, Stephen tricks people; he betrays them by winning others over even though he is a threat to them. Could this characteristic be what makes many dangerous politicians so successful?

Stephen does not jump ship, but when Paul calls him back, he betrays their trust for each other by not revealing that he met with Duffy. He eventually meets with Paul in a highly symbolic scene. Morris is on stage in front of a huge American flag presenting an optimistic message to the public. Behind the flag, behind the backs of the electorate one might say, Paul and Stephen discuss the unseemly maneuverings of backroom politics. It is here that Stephen tells Paul of his meeting with Duffy and his offer to have him join Pullman’s staff. He also reports the cabinet post offer to Thompson. Paul is enraged that Stephen met with the opposition. They meet with Morris who tells Paul that he said he didn’t want to make these kinds of deals. He has contempt for Thompson and says he won’t make the deal.
Later, Ida tells Stephen that she knows about his meeting with Duffy. If she releases this information, then he is ruined. He says that he has helped her by giving her information in the past and asks her why would she turn on her friend. She says he used her to leak information and that they are not friends. This act, too, is a betrayal since Ida does not see any moral code to live by in the political world other than self-interest.

Stephen calls Duffy who says he did not leak the meeting to Ida. Stephen meets with Paul and talks about what Ida said and how that will hurt the campaign. But, Paul says he told Ida about the meeting so it would be easier to fire Stephen as he will look like a traitor to Morris. Paul tells him that the most important thing to him is loyalty, and that Stephen, despite his protestations to the contrary, knew that the meeting with Duffy should have been reported when Paul called him back. Paul tells him that he met with Duffy because it was self-serving, it fed his ego that Duffy wanted to meet with him instead of Paul, and that Stephen liked being flattered. Stephen is incensed when Paul tells him that he has already spoken to Morris who has agreed to get rid of Stephen. Even though it appears that Paul lives by a higher ethic here, he, too, has performed a dirty political trick to smear his co-worker instead of just giving him an opportunity to quietly resign.
In order to appreciate the extent of this world of betrayal, we must examine the way these politicians treat the intern, Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), the daughter of the Democratic National Committee head, Jack Stearns (Gregory Itzin). She flirts with Stephen, who does not even know that she is Stearns’ daughter and even forgets that they worked together before. He is insincere with her from the start, acting like he knows her name when he doesn’t. They agree that her father is an “asshole.” They have sex, but the next morning Stephen gets a phone call from one of the staffers who asks who is talking in the background. Stephen says it’s the housekeeper. So, he is insensitive in the dismissive way he treats her, and makes her agree that their encounter should not be made public (like a political cover-up?). After another sexual encounter, he discovers that Morris has called her in the middle of the night. She reveals that she called the governor because she is in trouble, and she needs money because she can’t go to her father because her family is Catholic. She reveals that she slept with Morris just once. Stephen now only sees Molly as a dirty problem that must be cleaned up. She says that she and the governor screwed up, not just her. But, Stephen basically tells her that Morris matters more. He gets his subordinate Ben Harpen ( Max Minghella) to get money out of petty cash, which he gives Molly for the abortion. He says she must leave the campaign, exiling her in this time of need. He tells her to be secretive and only drops her off at the clinic without staying with her. He is even too late because of his job problems at this point to pick her up. She is left all alone after being discarded. After hearing from Ben about Paul wanting to fire Stephen, who said he would reveal everything and bring down the campaign in retribution, she is devastated about the scandal she will become involved in, which will harm her father, too. Perhaps her involvement with two older men in politics implies that she wasn’t treated will by her father, also a politician, and she sought a substitute who she hoped would compensate for that neglect. When Stephen arrives at her place at night he finds out that she is dead from an overdose of medications given to her at the clinic. But, he still puts politics as his primary priority as he takes her cell phone, thus stopping any information about Morris from getting out so he can use the information as leverage. Even in death, Molly is just another person to be used.
After finding out he will be fired, Stephen, knowing that he tried to protect the governor concerning his involvement with Molly and the subsequent pregnancy, feels that Morris turned on him and is now willing to betray his boss. He goes to Duffy offering to join their staff, saying he has big news that will sink Morris. But, Duffy says he can’t use him now that he has been let go, because he is damaged goods at this point. It comes out that Duffy was playing the cynical game of political chess, sacrificing people for political gain. He knew about Paul’s love of loyalty. He realized that as soon as he got Stephen to meet with him, he won. If Stephen would have joined the Pullman staff then, Duffy would have hurt the Morris campaign. Since he didn’t change sides, Duffy banked on Stephen telling Paul about the meeting, knowing that would result in Stephen losing his job. He advises Stephen to get out of politics before he becomes as jaded as himself, before he loses all of his idealism. But for Stephen it is already too late. He meets with Thompson, who does not know that Stephen will be fired, and cuts a deal with him that will give the senator the vice-presidency if he delivers the votes for the nomination.

And what about Morris? He seems to be an idealist publicly. But, in his private life he flirts with the woman putting on his makeup. In the conversation with Stephen on the plane, Morris asks what is in store for Stephen after his association with the candidate. Stephen says he may be a consultant who pimps for ex-presidents. Morris makes a joke about how he better win then. However, the remark shows his sexual proclivities. The next scene, ironically, shows Morris talking about his strong marriage, in public, of course. He tells his wife in private that he is upset that he has to keep crossing the ethical line in order to win. He bemoans this fact to his spouse to whom he has already been unfaithful, so he is compromised from the start. When he holds a press conference after Molly’s death he acts like he did not know her well. He doesn’t want to make a deal with Thompson, but political reality makes it inevitable. 
The movie portrays Morris and Stephen as doubles. The film opens with Stephen on a stage in front of a microphone, making a speech. It first appears that he is the candidate. We quickly realize he is just doing a sound check, but he echoes Morris in other ways. They are both political idealists who feel they must use unscrupulous means to justify their cause’s ends. They both subvert their better judgment by exploiting the same young, vulnerable woman. This act alone symbolizes the defiling of innocence; she may be seductive, but they take advantage of her instead of trying to protect her. When these two meet it is again hidden from the public in a dimly lit back room signifying their avoidance of the light which would reveal the truth of their indiscretions. They are no longer fighting for their ideals, but instead for selfish political survival. Stephen is ready to betray Morris by exposing the governor’s affair which he will spin led to Molly’s suicide. He wants Paul fired, he be made campaign manager, and that the deal be finalized with Thompson. Morris realizes that Stephen was also having sex with Molly. He says there is no DNA evidence, and it comes down to a sitting governor’s word against that of a fired, disgruntled ex-employee. Stephen goes deeper into deception by saying Molly left a note incriminating Morris, who counters by saying he doesn’t believe she would leave such incriminating evidence. But, Morris has to capitulate, because just the allegation can sink him. It is what is made known that matters, the image, as opposed to weightier issues, that feeds the public’s desire for sex scandals? That is why Stephen says that as president, “you can start a war, you can lie, you can cheat, you can bankrupt the country, but you can’t f … the interns. They’ll get you for that.” Is the movie making references to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush? We see a new, young, attractive female intern bringing coffee to Ben, who has taken over Stephen’s job. He asks her, “Are you a Bearcat?” It is the same line Stephen used on Molly. The implication is that the cycle of political corruption will continue.

Morris rewards Paul’s loyalty by firing him and offers Thompson the vice-presidency. The two stand on a podium, smiling, acting like friends, hiding their contempt and selfishness, again exhibiting betrayal of the public trust. At Molly’s funeral, Stephen encounters Paul. The new campaign manager is so self-centered, so much a selfish a political animal at this point, that he assumes Paul is there to meet him. His fallen state contrasts with that of Paul, who is present because he knew Molly since she was a child, got her the internship, and is there out of his loyalty to the family.
The end of the story mirrors the beginning. Stephen is again on stage, but this time he will be interviewed as the promoted campaign manager. Will he follow in his boss’ fallen footsteps on the road to elected office? His cold, empty stare into the camera is chilling. As in the Robert Redford movie, The Candidate, it appears that as soon as you enter into American politics, one is doomed to lose one’s soul. When someone betrays others, he also betrays the best part of himself.

The next film is The Manchurian Candidate.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please share your thoughts about the movies discussed here.