The transformation of Stephen Meyers from idealist to evil bastard is tragic, but it feels right. At one of many whispery secret meetings in The Ides of March, a rival campaign manager tells Stephen that Republicans are “meaner, they’re tougher, they’re more disciplined than we are… I’ve seen way too many Democrats bite the dust because they wouldn’t get down in the mud with the fuckin’ elephants.” You have to be an animal, fighting dirty, or you lose.
The Ides of March (2011) juggles two story lines: behind-the-scenes dealing to win the Democratic presidential primary; and a sex scandal. Stephen works for the campaign of Mike Morris, an atheist Democratic governor who speaks wisely about global warming, ending Middle East quagmires, and addressing income inequality. He’s a liberal’s dream, and Stephen, at the beginning, truly believes that Morris must win for the good of America. A New York Times reporter teases him for “buying into all this crap; all this ‘Take back the country’ nonsense.” The reporter covers the election, it’s her job, yet she insists it won’t matter. “Not one bit.”
The Ides of March is based on the play Farragut North, and the story is small despite its power and presidential backdrop. Mostly, characters meet in rooms to talk about each other. The literal stakes are Ohio’s delegates, but what really dangles here is a man’s soul. Stephen is young, bright, charming, loved by everyone he works with – and he means what he says. He is principled. But deals and bad compromises are struck by day, and even worse happens by night in hotel rooms. Several lives have been destroyed by the end of this movie, and Stephen is profoundly changed. His eyes are different. The light’s gone. He’s Darth Vader.
George Clooney wrote, directed, and stars as Morris. In real life, Clooney is an outspoken celebrity activist who hosts lavish fundraisers for Democrats. He understands specifics about how campaigns are won and lost, and he clearly hates it. Morris wins a primary, but something terrible happens, something basic. Another good man breaks bad.
In politics, evil prevails.