Power corrupts. That is the underlying theme of The Ides of March, and it is one that screams forth in every scene. While the adage that power corrupts can apply to many things, in The Ides of March the focus is primarily on politics, specifically on the United States political system within a Democratic primary before a presidential election.
The Question of Setting
The choice of having the story take place within a primary is an unusual one. On the whole, primaries tend to be just the warm-up period before a general election. In the United States, we are seeing one now for the Republicans. After a winner is decided, they will have to go on to campaign against Obama himself, the incumbent president. Consequently, primaries can feel comparatively unimportant and prompt the question, “Why have this story take place within a primary versus a presidential election?”
The answer is that everything is subservient to the plot. Ryan Gosling's character has to be presented with a scenario that tempts him to switch sides, to leave his campaign and join the opposing candidate. The only way this is feasible is if the candidate has a similar viewpoint as his own. By choosing to have the story take place during a primary (whether it is Democrat or Republican is irrelevant), this allows for the temptation to defect, which is the major instigating factor in the entire film even though the plot is moved merely by the thought of defection.
A Sea of Cynicism
My tangential analysis of setting aside, The Ides of March is at its most potent (and depressing) when we see the ramifications of people tempted by power. Ryan Gosling, though initially depicted as optimistic and innocent, is swiftly twisted into a mockery of his former self. Much like Dorian Gray's temptation with the painting, we see firsthand the painful downward spiral of a skilled and vibrant youth into somebody who is charismatic but ultimately empty and amoral. The movie is essentially a prolonged sequence of events designed to smash Gosling's character into that which he once professed to loath.
The crystal clear moral of The Ides of March is that politics (or, at least, American politics) are designed in a way that only allows the opportunistic and dishonest to succeed. Within the film we see and hear examples of those who manage to retain their morals, but they are never successful in the long run. Philip Seymour Hoffman's character is the prime illustration of this; he works hard and sticks to his belief system, but ultimately is discarded and rendered useless by the end. In the scene where he berates Gosling over his lack of loyalty, Hoffman provides a similar example of his youth, where he declined an opportunity to rise in the name of holding onto his principles and subsequently lost that campaign as well. The lesson is clear; politics are where morality and the good go to die or be rendered ineffectual. The vacant stare Gosling lays upon the camera at the end is the embodiment of this perspective.
The Ides of March proved quite effective in depicting this cynical outlook, but I found myself genuinely skeptical that the reality is this bad. Granted, I don't know much about the reality of political campaigns or the inner complexities of a primary. But my inner optimist found the soul deadening nature of the film to be so intense as to seem questionable. Something about it was just so dark that I found it unrealistic. I found myself wondering how it could be possible for political campaigns to be this nasty. From everything I've read, people are certainly capable of being corrupted when they achieve positions of power, but I've also read plenty of stories where national leaders live by their heart and do what they believe is right. I can't believe that the American system requires you to completely leave your morals at the door until you are elected. If that were the case, then why wouldn't people make an effort to change that system upon election?
I really did like The Ides of March and I think it was an incredibly intense movie. The dialogue is snappy and the characters are awesomely well acted. The side roles of Hoffman and Paul Giamatti were especially powerful. And both Gosling and George Clooney effectively portray lighter and darker sides at different stages of the story. It is a tale that, for me, was tainted only by its choice to delve so deeply into a cynical moral. It simply went so far that it felt comparable to a conspiracy theory with regard to how pessimistic one would have to be to believe that things actually are this way. And thus did I lose some ability to connect with what otherwise would have been an immaculate film.