I went to see The Ides of March Saturday night with my husband and son, and I should have stayed home. A. O. Scott of The New York Times warned me that although the film has “lofty” ambitions—to wrestle with “the nature of honor, the price of loyalty, the ways that a man’s actions are a measure of his character”--in the end it simply points out instances of male politicians treating women like paper napkins, of lying in politics generally, and of reporters getting things wrong. None of this is news, Scott says. Right. I’d go a little further: the fine acting in this film is utterly wasted.
Married Democratic governor Mike Morris, played by George Clooney, is a guy with a conscience except when it comes to sex. His media manager, Stephen Myers, played by Ryan Gosling, puts Morris’s sexual errors into context this way:
Don’t you know, [says Myers to the governor] that you can start a war [and here my memory of the actual movie dialogue gets faulty, so I’ll make up a few things], you can throw innocent people into prison, you can wreck a thriving economy, you can burn the country to the ground, but [what comes next I can quote with some confidence] “the one thing you cannot do is FUCK AN INTERN!”
The intern in question, said to be 20 years old, is played by Evan Rachel Wood and is the daughter of the chairman of the DNC. It doesn’t matter much who she is, except that her connection makes Morris seem even more hubristic than we already believe him to be and renders Myers, who sleeps with her, too, reckless, at the very least.
So it all comes down to sex. That’s recent, though, isn’t it? Didn’t FDR have a long-lived affair with Lucy Mercer? Didn’t most of the Kennedy family get it on with Marilyn Monroe? Bill Clinton may have been the turning point. He was just a little too relaxed about his infidelities.
After the movie, I had an argument with my son:
Me: I don’t understand this puritanical attitude toward sex. The George Clooney character has sex with a young woman and suddenly he’s not fit to be president?
Son: He’s married, Mom. Are you saying that it shouldn’t matter if he screws around on the side?
Me I’m saying that once it wouldn’t have mattered.
Son: Would you have voted for Barack if it came out that he was doing an intern?
Me: I voted for Clinton when it was already pretty clear that he couldn’t keep it in his pants.
Son: But, see, that’s the difference. He never pretended he was a good guy that way.
Me: So it’s the hypocrisy you object to?
Son: Well yes, the lying, but also the sex.
Me: It wasn’t that way when we were young. You could sleep with anybody you wanted to. The birth control pill was a wonderful thing.
Husband: AIDS. That’s what changed everything.
[My son and I ignore him. This happens far too often.]
Son: But don’t you think it’s better this way, Mom, better now than then?
Me: I do not think so. [At this point I reassure both husband and son that I myself do not practice infidelity.] . . . All I’m saying is why does it matter so much? When did we start to hold up marital fidelity as THE indicator of character? George W and his father before him were faithful in office, so we believe, but how many deaths were they responsible for?
My son and I did not agree to disagree. We just disagreed. I’ve been thinking a lot about the conversation since.
I know what the seventh commandment is, but what about all the others?
My husband has always maintained that Democrats get elected to office so they can have illicit sex, and Republicans so they can make illicit money. (He means men, of course.) What bothers me is that the Republicans have set the agenda for what can ruin a public official. They can dole out enormous contracts to Diebold and Halliburton, torture prisoners and render them to countries who torture them worse, collect money hand over fist from lobbyists who (to put it mildly) do not have our best interests at heart, and . . . you know the list. But most of them manage either to stay faithful to their wives or give up sex altogether. (The third possibility is that they hire hit squads to take out any and all people who know different.) My theory is they think sex is way more trouble than it’s worth. It doesn’t affect the bottom line, for one thing. Yet we’re supposed to think they’re fine, upstanding, moral men, apart from the occasional anomalies--you know, sex in bathroom stalls or while your wife is dying of cancer.
(Okay, I realize that most Democrats are not on my side, either. They can’t get there. Their health insurance packages are so big they bar the way.)
The saddest footage of The Ides of March is Evan Rachel Wood’s character waiting alone in the lobby of an abortion clinic for her procedure and in a restaurant afterward, again alone, for Myers to pick her up. He never shows.
Does the intern herself ever matter one bit in these scenarios? The film takes her story one step further, and that irritated me, too, because the only result of her suicide (besides ending her life) is to make Myers a meaner, smarter political player than before.
Did you or didn’t you? And how can we make you pay? What an arid, loveless world we live in.