Thanks to too much Shakespeare at an early age, and a memorable March 15th when I accompanied a friend to get a shoulder-blade tattoo, during which she said “I can’t believe I’m deliberately getting stabbed in the back on the Ides of March,” I’ve long had a bit of a soft spot for this day. That’s not what this column is about, though it was the inspiration for watching George Clooney’s 2011 film The Ides of March. An adaptation of the play “Farragut North,” The Ides of March does deal, a la Julius Caesar, with betrayal, politics, and untimely death (because it’s not Caesar who dies here but Juliet). It’s also a fascinating object lesson in how social and historical context can change a movie’s impact.
I missed The Ides of March on its first release. That being the case, I have no idea how it would have gone over with 2011 me. 2016 me got a kick out of its long, laconic takes and careful framing, a 70s Alan Pakula drama/political thriller tweener filtered through Steven Soderbergh. The performances are, as is often the case with actors turned directors but particularly with one as astute and precise as Clooney, excellent and given room to breathe. Clooney’s technique as a director is unobtrusive, favoring efficient explication of text through craft rather than overt flourishes, and he generally (in the films of his I’ve seen) stays within the boundaries of particular genres that suit his talents and predispositions well. And yet, with the temptation of this mounting collection of tendencies to call him “workmanlike” or – irony of ironies given his own politics and The Ides of March’s political milieu – “conservative,” there is at least one shot in every one of his films that is astonishing in its beauty. There are a few rather glorious tableaux in The Ides of March, but one shot in particular stands out, of Ryan Gosling, late in the narrative, reflecting on the betrayals he’s wrought, through a rain swept car window. It’s a beautiful image – having Gosling in it doesn’t hurt, obviously, but there’s more to it than that, the rain on the window keeps obscuring Gosling’s face, creating a window within a window that shrinks to the point of obliterating his face entirely, and just at the point in the film where his selfhood is receding in favor of his ambition.
If the above seems drily removed, it’s because one inescapable undercurrent (for me, at least) in 2016 is how charmingly quaint its life-or-death political problems seem now. When a spray-tanned Fuhrer manque with a dead Tribble on his head and the (not literal) Zodiac Killer are competing with each other to see which one can include the most war crime promises in their campaign platform, a sober, pained elegy for loyalty and fair play like The Ides of March seems even more wistful, a lament for a dead long since returned to dust. Its two main dramatic questions are whether campaign prodigy Ryan Gosling will jump from mentor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s staff to Paul Giamatti’s, and how intern (and daughter of the national party chairman) Evan Rachel Wood being secretly pregnant by candidate George Clooney will figure into Gosling’s power play, if he indeed engages in one. Hoffman’s character, completely aside from the melancholy cloud over all his work since his passing, is a particularly sad and wistful figure, the old pro who’s seen it all and yet still clings to solid, stand-up values like loyalty. However many people exist within professional politics who are not complete sociopaths, there’s something about conceiving of a character like Hoffman’s and casting so devoutly humanistic an actor in the role that speaks to a deep investment in the idea of politics as being redeemable, and a place where humanity can exist. And this is where, at this singularly desperate moment in American history, The Ides of March becomes a time capsule.
Still, it’s a fine “holiday” movie. Gosling’s ultimate betrayal is not of Hoffman, but of Wood, whom he coldly abandons, and who sees no recourse but, like Juliet, to drink poison. Gosling doesn’t follow suit, but by the end of the movie his soul certainly has. In this light, the idea that there are no Romeos, only Brutuses and Cassiuses, keeps The Ides of March grounded in bleak verisimilitude after all.