The Ides of March
When Clooney decided to change the name of this film, his fourth directorial effort, from Faragut North – the title of the play on which his script was based – to what you see before you the response was, for the most part, one of confusion: ‘What the hell are these Ides of March and what exactly do they have to do with the drama of a democratic convention?’ was a common cry among film fans. For those not in the know the answer is this, the new title is a direct reference to the great political play Julius Caesar; the phrase is part of a line shouted at Caesar by a soothsayer, ‘Beware the ides of March!’. The shout serves as a prediction of both the betrayal and the subsequent downfall that are to come his way, though it is ultimately an an unheeded warning. How that connects to this film depends entirely on your interpretation of its events: to some it is surely a little blunt a nod, to others it may be a little too obtuse and to a few it may even be a lot arrogant to class yourself alongside such an esteemed work. For me though name checking the Bard’s biggest History in the title is actually an entirely suitable adaptation to Faragut North given it’s content, but I have to question whether the execution is as deserving fo the juxtaposition.
Firstly The Ides is a political drama, it tells the story of a slightly simple-minded savant of spin who is helping run the campaign of an ominously Obama-esque Presidential candidate on the look-out for a nomination, and as we all know politics and plays are actually rather alike. Theatre as a medium is dependent on dialogue, it doesn’t have the density of straight fiction nor the flash of film, and so a play lives and dies with what its characters are saying and how they are saying it. So to are political campaigns driven by writing: each pronouncement must be letter perfect, the vocabulary must be constantly and consistently groomed and of course all anyone ever remembers – besides the odd splash of action – are the speeches; these long and hopefully eloquent speeches are at the core of either of the two. Essentially both plays and politics are, quite simply, about words and Shakespeare is surely the strongest wordsmith known to man.
Besides containing the great number of impassioned arguments, witty retorts and rousing monologues that are then required by any great political play – or adaptation thereof – Ides also manages to take this figurative truth and implement it literaly, deriving a dramatic plot that is actually about words. This though is a two pronged approach for in politics the word ‘word’ has two meanings, there is the obvious one to do with language but also the other that deals with truth, loyalty and the American way. A man’s word is his bond, they say, an idiom that Ides clearly sets out to both discredit then dismiss. Its plot consists of a silkentounge spun web of words; of vows, vouches, endorsements and pristine promises, each one of which is a trap, each speaker of the words akin to the spider.Everybody in this world has their own personal agenda, everyone uses their words to shield the truth rather than express it: saying one thing, meaning another and actually believing a third.
Though we don’t know it at the time the film gives us its strongest thematic punch in the opening scene: we see Gosling’s media manager walk out onto a dark stage in front of an empty grandstand and mumble some kind of speech. It sounds plaintively ridiculous coming out of his mouth, we think to ourselves ‘Is he joking? Is this satire’ but then, minutes later Clooney’s Senator Mike storms the stage and delivers those same exact words with the swagger we all know and love him for and then they mean something else entirely, coming from his mouth they’re not a faux-pas concession but a bold, brave strike at the establishment. At their core elections are simply exaggerated examples of my word versus yours and what this scene shows us is that the meaning of words stems only fifty percent from their definition and fifty from their delivery. Words are a show and all the world’s a stage.
Together these thematic explorations of the word combine to create a rather corrosive effect on what initially seemed like a straightforward affair; the once idealic campaign is progressively perverted into an affair as tragic in its own way as Brutus’ betrayal. Where the title of this film begins to become somewhat incongruous is in the how and whom of its major betrayal, because this isn’t really the tale of how a king among men came to be trampled beneath their feet; it’s rather more low-key than that, more inverted than even I expected. The presidential election itself is quite quickly placed in the peripheries as the plot becomes more and more personal; we never find out anything in the form of results, but we never need to because this isn’t really a film about the government or any particular issue. The politicking acts as a setting for the story, rather than as its soul.
It is with the nature of the soul that the film falls back into more traditionally tragic territory though, because like Caesar Ides is all about corruption but where that play showcased its degradation graphically, though the blood spilt over its secrets and compromises, Ides is content to deliver all of its internally. When the film ends it does so with a long, slow shot of Steven’s (Gosling) face and it’s not until then that we know just what has really been lost in this process; the man may not be dead but he’s now dead inside. It is integrity and idealism that are betrayed in this iteration of the tale, in this story of a soul being stabbed through too many times by people too close to it.
So though it may differ greatly in form from Shakespeare’s classic play, to me March is very much an adaptation of it in terms of content; it’s simply been contemporized. Whereas in Ancient Rome and Elizabethan England one’s life was their most prized possession and losing it was their greatest fear, but these days it is our image, our identity, our individual word that means the most of us and in that way cynicism is rather akin to death. So while I am tempted to call this film a little less than shallow, cautiously directed (to the point of looking cheap, when the audience is no doubt entirely rich) and dramatically underwhelming I’ll resist and instead just give you my word that it’s a movie well worth seeing and leave it up to you to figure out just what the hell that actually means.