The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Ides of March

Written by Greg Frame.

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When it comes to the genre of the American 'political film', if such a thing exists, it is always tempting to map on to the fiction the real events orbiting around it. The Ides of March (2011) is no different. One can’t help but try to view Clooney’s most recent directorial effort through the prism of contemporary US politics.

Divisive, underhanded, corrupt, conspiratorial, the Democratic primary contest presented as the central narrative thrust of The Ides of March is a microcosmic representation of a wider malaise. Although President Obama’s 2008 campaign offered brief respite from the cynicism and disenchantment with the world’s most dominant culture, the unfolding events of the Global Financial Crisis and the abject failure (or should I say refusal?) to avert its impact upon the most vulnerable has brought us crashing back down to earth. American politicians are, because of an electoral system that demands re-election every two years, self-serving and weak, unable to translate the ideals of their campaigns into the task of actually governing. Clooney’s Governor Mike Morris is emblematic of the problem with politics - look good at all costs, suppress the more problematic aspects of your character and your history, bribe the requisite parties with money or cabinet positions to ensure their silence, and thereby forge a smooth, unchallenged path to power. In theory, the capture of power will enable you to atone for the sins of your campaign by putting your ideals into practice. But the reality is, because of corporate interests and the necessity of obtaining ever larger amounts of campaign funding, this never happens.


However, the central problem I have with The Ides of March is how dated it feels. The political sins committed here seem oddly insignificant in a world in which an American president has manufactured conditions for a war, let alone lying about sex with an intern. This is perhaps unsurprising as it was adapted from Beau Willimon's play Farragut North, which was written in 2004, slightly before the Iraq War was revealed to be based on false intelligence. Although the play was loosely based on the brief candidacy of Democrat Howard Dean, the film adaptation is a fairly clear critique of Bill Clinton. Which brings us to the heart of the matter: Governor Mike Morris is not really an approximation of Obama at all, despite Clooney’s strategic referencing of the campaign posters. Instead, Morris is clearly indicative of Hollywood’s continuing preoccupation with the disappointment of Bill Clinton, the man who promised that the centrism he preached during the campaign was merely a cunning strategy to get elected. Once in office, he told his Hollywood supporters, he would most certainly pander to their every liberal whim. Unsurprisingly, given the power of the Reaganite consensus, this didn’t happen. Clinton retreated from healthcare reform with his tail between his legs. The gap between rich and poor widened during his presidency. He became embroiled in a sex scandal and was nearly impeached. These problems directly contributed to Al Gore’s failure to win the 2000 election outright, leaving the door open for the Supreme Court to install George W. Bush as president and maintain conservative control over the American political machine.


Hollywood has already dealt with its disappointment in Clinton. The idea that appalling lies and deceit committed during a campaign can be atoned for in power has already been successfully explored in Mike Nichols’ excellent Primary Colors (1998). That film had the added impact of being adapted from a loosely fictionalised version of Bill Clinton’s actual campaign for president 1992, and was released as the full extent (excuse the pun) of the president’s involvement with White House intern Monica Lewinsky became apparent. Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta), as near an approximation of Clinton as could possibly be achieved, has noble intentions and obvious charisma but, having been accused of fathering a child with his a 17-year-old babysitters, has too many blots on his copybook to sail through the primary campaign unscathed. To win election, he has to make a few problematic promises and stab a few people in the back. Sound familiar?

Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog (1998) similarly captured the late 90s zeitgeist through its suggestion that its fictional president might employ a Hollywood producer to stage a fictional war in order to distract from a sex scandal at home. It is thought that Clinton attempted a comparable strategy when he dropped bombs on Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, soon after admitting to having had improper relations with Lewinsky. At the time, the similarities between Clinton’s actions and Levinson’s film were considered a humorous example of life imitating art. From the perspective of 2011, one can determine something far more significant: even during his presidency, Hollywood was deeply suspicious of Bill Clinton.


Hollywood films dealing with presidential sex scandals, lies and conspiracies were plentiful: Murder at 1600 (1997) and Absolute Power (1997) both addressed the subject, albeit within the confines of the Hollywood thriller. More scabrous and satirical in subject and treatment, Primary Colors and Wag the Dog revealed just how disappointed Hollywood was with Bill Clinton’s presidency. As if to hammer a final nail in Clinton’s coffin, romantic comedy Definitely, Maybe (2008) charted the former president’s rise and fall through the eyes of an idealistic young staffer, Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds). Hayes’s acceptance of Clinton’s failings appears to be analogous to his transition from youth to fully-fledged adulthood. Hollywood’s attitude towards Bill Clinton’s presidency seems simlar: with the disappointment of Clinton went the youthful hope of a liberal America.

Essentially, The Ides of March loses its impact because it is not “of the moment”. Considering the myriad challenges that face America, a political sex scandal feels overwhelmingly irrelevant to the waning superpower's economic stagnation and political gridlock. We have confronted our disappointment with our political leaders and, aside from a (very) brief dalliance with Obama, we know they are only human, that the system is corrupt, that democracy is illusory. We have been told this repeatedly by both films and by the news. What The Ides of March has to say about American politics has already been said. 2011 has been an economically and politically turbulent year; reality has proved much more disturbing than fiction. As a result - to level an accusation at the film that is frequently hurled at our politicians - The Ides of March simply feels ‘out-of-touch’.

This Alternate Take was published on December 16, 2011.