Who is it in the press that calls on me?
—Caesar, Julius Caesar
“I love Paul,” sighs Ida Horowitz (Marisa Tomei), as she watches him (Philip Seymour Hoffman) shuffle from their table to the restaurant restroom. Stephen (Ryan Gosling), the guy she’s talking to, smiles. “Because he gives you scoops.” Ida smiles back, sort of. “You really buy this crap,” she assesses, “all this take back the country shit.”
Stephen is working with Paul on the campaign of a Democratic governor who’s trying to be president. As The Ides of March begins, they’re in the midst of the long haul of primaries, dining with Ida because she’s a New York Times reporter. Maybe too because she is friends with Paul: they’ve known each other for years, having worked on many campaigns, managing or covering many aspiring politicians. Her veteran status is awkwardly underlined in her appraisal of Stephen. Of course he’s drinking the Kool-Aid, that’s what new campaigners do, before they become old. Her surprise looks disingenuous: hasn’t she seen this before?
Stephen will learn a lesson, of course, as have so many other similar young men in similar movies. His trajectory resembles those in movies ranging from All the King’s Men (either the 1949 version or the Sean Penn) and A Face in the Crowd to The Candidate and The War Room. Kids come in believing the “crap” and by the end, they don’t. Or rather, they see more clearly how it’s manufactured and how the system keeps on churning no matter who says, does or owes what to whom. In this case, Ida’s articulation of the problem is especially redundant, as the movie’s very first moments have revealed Stephen rehearsing his candidate’s stump speech during a sound check: “I am not a Christian. I am not an atheist, I am not Jewish,” he recites, “My religion is written on a piece of paper called the Constitution.” He’s in shadow and then in light, he’s aware of the show. What he believes at this point is less that his man, Mike Morris (George Clooney, who also directs) is good than that he—Stephen—is good at putting on the show.
Stephen’s belief will be confirmed in The Ides of March. How that happens is not a little bit conventional. Based on Beau Willimon’s play, Farragut North, the movie not only restates that the take back the country shit is just that, no matter who says it. It also uses girls—rather brutally—to illustrate the young man’s education. And so, Stephen will not only learn that, in fact, Ida is right (her warning and her name so helpfully Shakespearean), but also that his belief—in his skill, commitment or candidate—is that crap.
If this end is predictable, the story’s machinations are more so. Stephen’s instruction is embodied, very literally, by a pretty young intern, a plot point who literally walks into frame carrying coffee. Wearing boots and a wool skirt, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) appears at first to be even more earnest and idealistic than Stephen. Come to find out that she knows at least a little about the business they’re in, if only by osmosis, her father (Gregory Itzin) being the DNC chair. This makes her both more and less delectable for the boys who lose track of moral boundaries on the campaign trail. When she begins to lie about her age and then to seduce Stephen in a dark bar after work, well, that loss is not only confirmed but normalized. She wants it, he’s only reacting.
This will be the story going forward for Stephen. The next morning he suggests to Molly that she not disclose their night’s activities and she agrees. The movie never considers how she sees her part in this agreement, except to note her mild displeasure in a glance and a brief remark. It’s focused incessantly on Stephen’s reacting to other desires expressed by others (mostly men, and oh yes, Ida too). When Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), manager of Morris’ primary opponent’s campaign, wants a meeting, Stephen goes along, doesn’t quite tell Paul about it until it’s too late, and then stumbles into a rats’ nest of consequences. These plot turns—essentially, questions of who betrays whom when and how—are intertwined with a few more involving Molly, and soon enough, Stephen is not only disillusioned (first reaction), but also rather brilliant at manipulating to get what he thinks he wants (second reaction).
Ida’s observation at the film’s start is thus revisited more than once. The players are convincing, the intrigues are increasingly complicated, especially as you’re seeing them from Stephen’s perspective. But if you step outside (a position not especially evident in the film), that perspective looks not only dramatically limited, but also awfully familiar. As he cuts a deal with a cunning senator (Jeffrey Wright) or makes threats against villains he hasn’t anticipated, Stephen’s manipulations are increasingly predictable. It may be compelling to wonder whether he’s motivated by pain or grief or loss (or revenge, as Tom Duffy guesses).
But such details—exquisitely intimated and not spelled out by Gosling’s very fine performance—are overwhelmed by the film’s broader scheme, that a young man’s corruption—or maybe more precisely, a young man’s coming to see the corruption that’s built into what he believes—is occasioned by a young woman’s body. This old-school melodrama undermines the movie’s examination of politics as a business. What’s most surprising in the end, is that Ida, introduced as a wily veteran, looks so clueless about what’s happened. Or maybe that’s not surprising either, as she’s only another piece in the young man’s plot.