The new political drama The Ides of March (read our review) – co-written, directed by and starring George Clooney – opened in theaters this weekend. Adapted from Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, the film stars Ryan Gosling as Stephen Myers, a talented and ambitious campaign press secretary for Governor Mike Morris (Clooney).
In the story, the Morris campaign is in the midst of a political dogfight in the Ohio primary – which will determine the Democratic nomination for the Presidency – when Stephen becomes enmeshed in a web of paranoia, deception and soul-staining “compromise.” Loyalties are tested and boundaries crossed when the opposing candidate’s campaign manager (Paul Giamatti) attempts to woo Stephen to his side – just as Stephen inadvertently uncovers a secret that could mean the end of Morris’ political ambitions.
We had the opportunity to speak with screenwriter Grant Heslov about The Ides of March, which (as the title indicates) was crafted as a study in betrayal. Heslov co-wrote and produced the film with Clooney under their Smokehouse Entertainment banner. The film was initially delayed in the hopes of finding a release date that would gel with immediate socio-political concerns. With that goal in mind, Ides makes its way to audiences just as Republican presidential hopefuls are gearing up for the upcoming primary battle.
[WARNING – IDES OF MARCH SPOILERS AHEAD!]
“We were very interested in exploring specifically how we elect our president,” Heslov shared with us from the set of his new film Argo.
“I had read the play. He (Clooney) and and I were working on something else, another idea, and he read it and we sort of felt like we could take what we were working on and marry it to this play. It seemed like a very good fit for us. We were working on a big morality tale and basically that’s what we turned this film into. I wouldn’t call the play a morality tale – maybe some would – but our desire was to turn it into that.”
The ethical dilemmas presented in The Ides of March often have as much to do with being accountable for one’s choices, as they do with the choices themselves – which is perhaps one reason that the film’s star, Ryan Gosling, feels that Ides could be set against multiple backdrops, citing corporate America and Hollywood as possible alternate settings for the film.
“I think Ryan’s right,” Heslov agreed. “I think you could tell this in the world of big business — of Enron for instance. The moral choices I think are still the same.”
The moral choices in this film, however, are colored with an element that is specific to those who work in the public sphere – the desire to effect change. Greed, avarice and cynicism are all in play, but beneath (or in tandem with) those impulses, the central characters in the film (Stephen and his candidate) have a genuine drive to impact the world and the lives of others, in what they believe will be a positive manner. That is not to say that these are doe-eyed idealists incapable of traversing murky and unpredictable political waters. It is simply that they are motivated by a shared belief that it is possible, just possible, that Morris will actually govern with the intent of easing the burdens of the average citizen.
“We wanted to create a candidate that regardless of what side of the fence you’re on, seemed like a good and honorable candidate. A man who stood by principals. And then we wanted to show that he was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. At that point, those moral questions really rear their head in terms of how Stephen is going to deal with it.”
The candidate himself is only discussed in the abstract in the source material. He does not exist as a flesh and blood character, as it is the chess moves of everyone around him that the play chooses to focus on. “We wanted that character to be in the film and have the plot be depended on the machinations of what happened with that candidate.” Heslov explained.
“Clearly it’s Ryan’s story and we didn’t want to detract from that. At the same time we wanted to have sort of a worthy – I don’t know if adversary is the right word – but we wanted to raise the stakes.”
The relationship between Morris and Stephen is indeed an engaging one. The young press secretary believes in him, almost as if he is a salesman who has finally found a product of value. He has a (somewhat) romanticized faith in Morris’ character and ability to do right by the electorate. What becomes fascinating are the circumstances that cause Stephen to question Morris’ integrity. No one is playing fair in the film, no one is walking the straight-and-narrow. It is a high stakes game they are playing, it is the “big leagues: it’s mean.” With something as valuable as the Presidency on the line, it would be unrealistic to depict an environment where the players are pulling punches.
The opposing team makes moves to manipulate the outcome of the primary in ways that stay just inside the lines of election fraud. In order to recoup those losses, Morris must offer Jeffrey Wright’s Senator Thompson the position of Secretary of State (should they win) in order to secure his endorsement and the votes of his delegates.
It is clear that Morris believes that Senator Thompson would be a poor, even dangerous, Secretary of State – and yet Stephen pushes his candidate to make the compromise, though Morris is initially resistant.
We shared with Heslov that these felt like the real “et tu, Bruté” moments in the film as an audience member and voter. It depicts a grim picture where votes are manipulated as if the populace truly is a herd of mindless sheep. Almost worse than that, Morris (the man we are meant to believe in) and his team are willing to have a Senator who will undoubtedly do harm in the world become the Secretary of State.
Yet it is Morris’ sexual indiscretion with an intern that Stephen eventually holds against him. The bulk of the focus is given to that plotline rather than what we find to be the most dangerous and duplicitous storylines — the manipulation of the votes, and the willingness on the part of Morris’ team to sell Cabinet positions. Given the attention that the film gives to the sexual interplay between the characters, it seems possible that some may conclude that the filmmakers feel that this aspect of the Judas Kiss, of betrayal, is the more interesting or consequential.
When we asked Heslov if he felt some viewers may interpret the film with that lens, he responded:
“I hope not. Do I think that there are people out there who will read it that way? Probably. I’m always shocked, and I’m never shocked when I see the way that people have interpreted something that we’ve written or that we did. I’m like, ‘Really? That’s what you got out of it, that’s what you saw?’ And it can be completely valid and still it just always somewhat surprises me. Look, the truth is that he ends up with Thompson for all the wrong reasons. But at the end of the day, I guess the larger question is: is he the right man for the job? Yes he has done what I think are some pretty despicable things. But I also think that he is the better candidate, and probably the better man for the job and so I hope it raises a bunch of interesting questions.”
When asked which specific actions he was referring to as despicable, Heslov responded:
“Well I think it’s despicable to sleep with an intern, and I think it’s despicable to then make a deal based on that and take somebody on as your Secretary of State who you absolutely think is the worst person for the job.”
The circumstances of the film will naturally cause audience members to think of recent, as well as not-so-recent, political scandals that have followed similar trajectories.
“You can’t help but think about Clinton, you can’t help but think about Edwards (even though we wrote this before the whole Edwards thing happened) and you can go down the line. I mean it’s congressmen, it’s senators… I mean it’s not supposed to be specifically about Clinton but with a line like, ‘you can do X, Y and Z but you can’t f**k the interns’ I think it’s going to be hard for people to get away from that.”
“You can’t get away with sleeping with the intern” Stephen tells Morris in their final confrontation. What you can get away with, according to the film (the aforementioned, “x, y and z”) includes starting a war. The filmmakers seem to be highlighting the discrepancy between the consequences that those who have taken questionable actions in their sexual lives have faced, and those who have made choices with more far-reaching political ramifications in that exchange between Morris and Stephen. When we asked Heslov to address the parallels he and Clooney were drawing, he replied:
“I mean look, I think it (infidelity) is despicable, but I also don’t think that that’s my business to be honest with you. And I think that starting a war is a much more important thing to talk about – particularly a war that in my opinion was based on lies. That’s a much more important issue and much more despicable than the other. I mean look, do I know that, or do I think that people are going to make that connection? Absolutely, I would be stupid if I didn’t.”
The film takes a simultaneously jaded and idealistic tone. Idealistic in the sense that it attempts to draw a flawed, but worthy, leader in the character of Morris. Jaded in the sense that it presents a picture of an electoral process so filled with rot that the chances of truly inspired leadership are next to impossible. Heslov’s own take on politics seems to be in line with the film.
“I feel hopeful. I feel perhaps a little cynical since we made the film. That’s probably why we made it. I think we go back and forth. I think it’s fluid. I know that there are dedicated and honest and honorable people working in government, but I think that the flaws inherent in the system make that difficult to shine through. Right now the country is more polarized that I can ever remember it being, and just trying to get normal stuff done – like just trying to get some judges through… and this is for both sides. This isn’t a partisan thing.”
Often films that are political in nature carry an intrinsic plea for change or action. For Heslov however, conversation is the ultimate goal.
“We’re not really call to action kind of guys. I think we’re more sort of like let’s just highlight the debate and let the audience argue it out.”
The dialogue that audience members engage in after seeing this film will likely reflect their current take on politics, the political party they are (or are not) affiliated with, and the past and present leaders that the film alludes to. It is unlikely that viewers will alter a previously established stance on a particular issue. It is possible to look at the film as one that throws many of the basic elements of human nature into sharp relief.
Perhaps the most interesting question the film raises is if it is not our unwillingness to openly face and acknowledge the baser sides of our humanity that creates an environment where deception and dishonor thrive.
The Ides of March is in theaters now.
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