Near the midway point of The Ides of March, George Clooney’s handsome new movie about a fictional battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, I found myself trying to imagine the version of the film that’s playing in the mirror universe where Republicans dominate Hollywood and the movie industry specializes in catering to conservatism’s fantasies and fears.
Here’s what I came up with: It’s a week before the hotly contested Florida primary and a beautiful tea partier named Michelle Taggart (played by, I dunno, Anne Hathaway) is locked in a battle with the bland establishment Republican Britt Cromney. Taggart is campaigning on a flat tax, free-market Medicare reform, and a “drill baby drill” plan to exploit America’s energy reserves. She’s also a devout evangelical Christian who answers a debate question by eloquently comparing abortion to the Holocaust and antebellum slavery. Naturally, she’s also the candidate the Democratic party fears the most in the general election, which is why they’re plotting to use ACORN-abetted voter fraud to tip the primary to the more moderate and therefore beatable Cromney.
At the center of this drama is a young right-wing campaign operative (I’m thinking Joseph Gordon-Levitt, if he can pull off a southern accent), handsome and high-minded and utterly convinced that Taggart is Ronald Reagan come again. This young idealist, alas, is about to get a lesson in the awful dilemmas of politics. Just days before the primary, he learns a secret about Taggart that changes his perception of her character. (I’m thinking a long-buried op-ed voicing support for the individual mandate, or maybe a scandal involving the hiring of illegal-immigrant day laborers.) Does he go public with what he’s learned? Does he jump ship to Cromney’s campaign? Or does he hold his knowledge over Taggart’s head, the better to keep her on the right-wing straight and narrow once she’s in the White House?
Take this story, reverse all the ideological elements, and you have the basic plot architecture of The Ides of March. Instead of a stalwart young Reaganite, its press-secretary hero, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), is a “Hope and Change”–type progressive who proves his talents as a media macher by schmoozing New York Times reporters over drinks. And instead of a tea-party dream candidate, Myers’s boss is the purest liberal fantasy: a square-jawed ex-military Pennsylvania governor named Mike Morris (played by Clooney himself, naturally), who’s pro-choice, pro–gay marriage, anti–death penalty, and anti-war; who monologues stirringly in defense of his atheism (“my religion is the Constitution of the United States!”), and who’s campaigning on a platform of Solyndra-style green energy and mandatory national service.
Naturally, the prospect of facing a godless anti-fossil-fuel liberal in the general election so terrifies the Republicans that they unleash a version of Rush Limbaugh’s “Operation Chaos” in the Ohio primary, hoping to deliver the state to Morris’s Arkansas rival instead. Meanwhile, Morris turns out to have a potentially fatal weakness that only our hero knows about, which sets in motion a series of double- and triple-crosses that forces the young man to either turn Machiavellian or give up on progressive politics entirely.
As a story, The Ides of March is bunkum masquerading as sophistication, with a script that aspires to be a kind of David Mamet–Aaron Sorkin hybrid but lacks the requisite razzle-dazzle. The cast is great — Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti play dueling campaign managers, Marisa Tomei the insinuating Times reporter, Evan Rachel Wood a “here comes trouble” intern — but the characters never transcend their archetypes, and the dialogue belabors and simplifies and plods, without a trace of wit to leaven its self-importance.
As a window into the liberal psyche, though, the movie makes for illuminating viewing. The Ides’s script comes from Farragut North, a 2008 play by a veteran of the Howard Dean campaign, but the story weaves together elements from just about every Democratic psychodrama of the last 20 years: Dean versus Kerry, Hillary versus Barack, the John Edwards imbroglio, the Bill and Monica nightmare. And its central theme is the excuse that liberals always make for political failure: that politics is a nasty business, that Republicans are inherently better at nastiness and scheming, and that there just aren’t enough Democrats willing “to get down in the mud with the [expletive] elephants,” as Giamatti’s campaign guru snarls.
This message dovetails neatly with the way the American Left (in Hollywood and elsewhere) is currently rationalizing Barack Obama’s failures — by arguing that he just wasn’t tough enough and mean enough and conniving enough to take on those dastardly Republicans and win. But it creates yet another artistic problem for the movie, because the audience doesn’t know exactly how to interpret Myers’s moral dilemmas.
Sometimes Clooney frames his hero’s potential corruption by the dark art of politics as a tragedy. But sometimes he seems to be implying that President Obama could learn a lot from the ruthlessness of his movie’s scheming characters. In the end, The Ides of March can’t decide whether it’s telling a cautionary tale or proposing a 2012 campaign strategy.