Film review: The Ides of March (no spoilers)

There was a time when I would have absolutely loved a film like this: a political drama that showed the backstage maneuverings of politicians and their campaigns. I would have thought that I was getting a look at what ‘real’ politics was all about, as opposed to what was reported in the newspapers and on TV.

You can read about the film at the official website. Here’s the trailer.

The film deals with a crucial Democratic primary election in Ohio and focuses on the internal goings-on within the two campaigns. It was watchable, mainly because it had good actors in George Clooney as one of the candidates and the usual excellent performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman as his campaign manager and Paul Giamatti as Hoffman’s counterpart working for Clooney’s opponent.

Offsetting this were the two young leads Ryan Gosling as Clooney’s communications honcho and Evan Rachel Wood as an intern. Their characters were annoying and not plausible, and the lead up to their romance too long and cute for words. Furthermore, a central plot device (a secret meeting between Gosling and Giamatti, the mere public revelation of which would cause a scandal) seemed absurd. Who, except the campaigns and reporters, cares about who meets whom among campaign staffs? I assume that they run into and talk to each other all the time, at bars and hotels and campaign venues.

But the main reason for my lack of enthusiasm is that my interests in politics are now at a different level from what the film deals with, and so my lackluster review is not entirely the fault of the film.

I see politics as functioning at three levels. The surface level is where we have candidates and parties and their platforms and speeches. This is what we largely see and read about in the mainstream media. The second level is what The Ides of March is all about, the wheeling and dealing, the intrigues, and the backstabbing involving politicians, campaign staff, and the reporters covering them. This is the stuff that feeds a lot of the political blogs and can be endlessly fascinating for a certain kind of political junkie.

It is the third level of democratic politics that now interests me. This involves the eternal tension between the oligarchy and its attempts to corral the public so that they will acquiesce in the policies that enrich the former and impoverish the latter, using its money and ownership of the media to limit the range of actions of politicians. The other two levels are of interest to me only so far as they reflect this underlying dynamic.

The general public has too many day-to-day concerns and worries to have time to think too deeply about politics and become aware of how their views and actions are largely molded by the oligarchy. But the public is not entirely malleable. They do have a visceral sense that they have little control over events and it is this vague sense of being manipulated that causes problems for the oligarchy and which they try to squelch. The public is like a thick mud in that when you try to scoop it up and shape it, parts of it are always squeezing through your fingers and escaping. There are times when this tension is more visible than others, such as when there are wars or economic crises, and we are living in one of those times. The Tea Party, and even more the Occupy movement, are manifestations of people glimpsing the machinations of the oligarchy and trying to squirm free of its grip. Such protests tend to be anarchic and disorganized and are a surface symptom of the underlying dynamic that is at play.

The 1976 film Network, in its over-the-top way, provided a much better window into the deeper political processes. It had excellent direction from Sidney Lumet and a first-rate cast in Peter Finch, William Holden, and Fay Dunaway. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky did not hold back on his sharp criticisms of how the system operated, although he could at times be preachy. That film too was produced following a time of crisis, that one caused by the Vietnam war and Watergate, and drew back the curtain on the workings of politics and the news. Everyone should watch the classic scene from the film, in which a member of the oligarchy played by Ned Beatty explains to TV news anchor Finch, who thinks he is a rebel against the system, how things really work and what his role is.


  1. Peter says

    After seeing a film I frequently will come back to certain themes or scenes or moments, replaying them in my head. The more I come back to a film, and the longer this revisiting lasts into the future, the better the film -- that’s my personal way of judging.

    On this scale, some of the best movies I’ve seen are Primer, Memento, Pan’s Labyrinth, 12 Monkeys.

    I saw Ides of March back in the fall. I haven’t thought about it once since seeing it. I agree there were some good performances, but if the script is bad it doesn’t matter how good the acting and directing are.

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