On “Ides of March,” Politics, Sex, and Morality

Ides-of-march-evan-rachel-wood-ryan-gosling
Evan Rachel Wood and Ryan Gosling in "Ides of March."

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. 

4 thoughts on “On “Ides of March,” Politics, Sex, and Morality

  1. Anthony

    I agree and find this an excellent take on the film. But this seems off to me:

    “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.”

    First, the reason Molly can’t turn to her father for the abortion money is that they’re Catholic, so she wants to keep it a secret. Then, she hears the voice mail message that Gosling’s character said that he was going to take down the campaign, and take down Mike Morris. This obviously suggests to Molly that Gosling is going to reveal the affair and abortion (in order to take down Morris), and, since we know the abortion being revealed would be a source of great shame for her and her family, that is why she commits suicide.

    I wouldn’t be so certain if she didn’t have such a visible reaction to the part of the message that said that Gosling told P.S. Hoffman that he was gong to “take down” Morris, and if she didn’t kill herself right after that.

    Reply
  2. Dana Goldstein

    After I wrote the post, I had a similar thought about why she might have killed herself, re: Catholic guilt. I still find the whole suicide thing implausible for a character portrayed as so savvy and sexually mature.

    Reply
  3. Vikram Surya Chiruvolu

    Nice review Dana. I also did find the Molly character problematic, and her suicide a really weak point in the story, even in light of the Catholic angle. It seemed she was much too empowered and independent-minded to kill herself at all, much less before she knew for sure if the Gosling character was really going to use her situation to expose Morris.

    I also thought another weak point around this was that it’s rather unlikely that in the aftermath of such a suicide by a pretty young well-connected staffer, that there wouldn’t be an investigation that would expose the whole matter, despite the Gosling character’s manipulations. At least I don’t feel the ensuing investigation aspect of it was dealt with realistically.

    I feel your comments on the role of women in the film were right on — both about problematic suggestions of punishment for promiscuity, and post-abortion syndrome.

    Overall, however, I actually can applaud Clooney for his explorations of this modern archetype of the ‘fixer’ — of the people in power who try to make the truth go away. It was there in this film, Syriana, and Michael Clayton. I’m glad he’s putting this into the popular consciousness, and in the process, calling journalists to task, and the general public to question our faith in mediated representations of the truth.

    Reply
  4. Christiaan

    I completely agree with you on Molly. The suicide did not make sense to me either, and was not consistent with the way she behaved before her death.

    However I have a different take on what the film would say about politics in relation to Clooney’s character. Actually precisely because I agree with you about what you say about his character and what it says about his political position. It’s just that I don’t think that the movie says it’s different from that, as you suggest. My take is that you’re wrong to think of the movie to be about Clooney’s character, even though Clooney is the biggest star in the movie. Rather he’s a side figure. It’s also obvious form the fact that his character is really shallow and bland in the movie. This movie is really about Gosling’s character and his development from a convicted idealist to a cynical player. It’s not Morris that loses his soul, it’s Meyers. And I don’t think the final scene suggests anything about what Meyers thinks of Morris, but rather about himself.

    Reply

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