MAJOR SPOILER ALERT. SERIOUSLY. DON'T READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE MOVIE YET.
Tonight I saw "Ides of March," the George Clooney film in which a sex scandal is grafted onto a presidential campaign based loosely on both Obama '08 and Dean '04.
The movie features riveting acting and smart dialogue; my favorite scenes were those between Ryan Gosling, who plays an idealistic communications staffer, and Marissa Tomei, a journalist covering the race for the New York Times. Of course, it goes without saying that Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti were fantastic. But I found the film far more problematic than believable, particularly in the way it deals with sex and gender.
The female lead is Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Molly, a 20-year old campaign intern and daughter of the Democratic National Committee chairman. She gets pregnant after a one-night stand with the candidate, Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney), whose judgement apparently slips as he is riding the high of his Iowa caucus win.
Sexually forward and whip-smart, Molly later seduces Gosling's character, who learns of her tryst with Morris and fires her, but not before helping her obtain a $900 abortion. Alone in her hotel room after the procedure, Molly kills herself by overdosing on painkillers and alcohol–either because she is worried that her affairs with both men will ruin their careers and the Democratic Party's chance to regain the White House or, perhaps because she is intentionally exacting revenge on the men who've wronged her. (The movie does not make Molly's intentions clear.)
Allow me to deconstruct this. First of all, the average cost of an abortion at a clinic like the one Molly visits in the film is $350, not $900. It is unlikely that an affluent, educated young woman like Molly would need to beg for help in acquiring this amount of money. More disturbingly, given that Molly's character is portrayed as neither depressed nor unstable before the abortion–indeed, she seems happy, ambitious, and hard-working–her suicide in the procedure's aftermath perpetuates the myth of "post-abortion syndrome:" the unsubstantiated belief, which has nevertheless crept into real-life anti-choice legislation and court decisions, that women are particularly suspectible to mental, emotional, and physical illness after an abortion.
The film also harkens back to the age-old pop culture tradition of female characters being "punished" for promiscuous sex and abortions with either sickness or death.
In short: This is all highly unrealistic and dated. What's more, none of it convinced me to feel particularly cynical about politics–at least not for the reasons presented in the film. Clooney's character, the candidate, is actually the most sympathetic person in "Ides of March." Although he is an adulterer, the governor at least tends to resist the temptation to moderate his policy positions on the death penalty and foreign wars, to pander to the religious right, and to trade cabinet positions for endorsements. His staffers, on the other hand, are all-too-quick to forget their principles in service of either a political win or personal career advancement.
So while you wouldn't want to be married to Gov. Mike Morris, there's no reason, as the movie seems to suggest in its final scene, to feel that voting or working for him would be futile, or that either act lacks basic integrity. As cynical as I get about the filibuster, the electoral college, voters' lack of policy knowledge, and all the other terrible aspects of the American political system, I still believe it really does matter who gets elected president. Wars are launched. Judges are appointed. Regulations are made.
Reducing politics to a hackneyed sexual morality play might make for fun entertainment, but it is a fundamentally inadequate lens through which to view American campaigns, elections, and government–except to say that our political system (and political media) ought to be far less focused on politicians' (and American women's) sex lives.