Year Released: 2011
Directed by: George Clooney
Starring: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei
(R, 98 min.)
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings." William Shakespeare
George Clooney is no William Shakespeare. Yet he is quite savvy to title his film after those famous words from the English playwright’s Julius Caesar, one of the best dramatic examinations of political intrigue, ambition, and betrayal ever written.
While this contemporary film is probably more realistic than Shakespeare’s play, its ensemble cast of dramatic heavyweights – Clooney, Hoffman, and Tomei are all past Oscar winners – don’t come close to the tragic vision evoked in London’s Globe Theater over 400 years ago.
Interruption for some full disclosure here. I taught high school English for over 20 years, and it was always a joy to wade through Shakespeare with my adolescent audience, an author of such substance and style that I always saw something new each time I taught his plays. Julius Caesar was an acquired taste, usually coming during the sophomore year, rather dry as dust after the students’ first heady love affair with Romeo and Juliet freshman year.
Perhaps one of the reasons Shakespeare’s play resonates more with each reading is his intuitive understanding of each character’s motivation and psychology. And no matter how badly they behave, each character has to a greater or lesser degree, a certain nobility about him. Brutus, whether he was so historically or not, is portrayed as an idealist sucked into the plot to kill Caesar during the middle or “ides” of March.
It’s hard to find such a sympathetic character in Clooney’s film. The self-proclaimed “idealist” –watch out for someone who paints himself as one – is senior staffer Stephen (Ryan Gosling). He sees Governor Morris (George Clooney), running in a closely contested Democrat primary for the Presidency, as “the only one that’s actually going to make a difference in people’s lives.” It’s when he qualifies that vision that we begin to see its limits. “This time we don’t have to fight dirty to win,” he smiles. "I'll do or say anything if I believe in it, but I have to believe in the cause.”
Ultimately, the handsome and lithe Stephen borrows only a smattering twentieth century version of Brutus’s idealism and marries it to the Machiavellian opportunism of Shakespeare’s Cassius, the lean and hungry one who thinks too much and is therefore dangerous.
And what about the idealistic politician he so admires? Clooney’s Mike Morris has much of the complexity of Julius Caesar as Shakespeare portrayed him. You see his political acumen, his better angels and his feet of clay. One critic has labeled the uber liberal and populist Morris a secret love child spawned by Barack Obama and Jonathan Edwards. I’d have to throw in a little Bill Clinton as well. While lacking the literal bloody back stabbing and the wonderfully dramatic, “Et tu, Brute!” of the bard’s play, there is enough betrayal and counter betrayal to satisfy here.
We have at least two of Caesar’s preferred hangers on in our film, at least in physical description:
“Let me have men about me that are fat:
Sleek headed men and such as sleep o’ nights.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is Paul Zara, Morris’s chief campaign strategist, fits the physical bill, but it ends there. He is anything but easy going, living on scotch, cigarettes, and an ego as oversized as his girth, the ultimate insider who sees people only as a means to his end – winning the election with every trick in the book. He is cynical, manipulative, and ruthless with just one weakness or saving grace, depending on your point of view: "There's only one thing I value and that's loyalty. And without it, you're nothing." Yes, Paul has “some shred of goodness there. Not enough to weave a banner with it, but … enough to keep it from such dogs” as he associates with.
Our other sleek headed fat man is Paul Giamatti’s Tom Duffy, the campaign manager for Senator Pullman, Morris’s primary challenger. He reminds us of the little cackling Sicilian Vizzini from The Princess Bride in the scene with the poison wine, always planning his moves three or four stages ahead. Cross and double cross, a win win situation. Yet, can you recall who succumbs to the poison wine in that memorable scene?
The women in the film, with the exception of Morris’s wife, a pretty minor character, are singularly unpleasant. I still remember Shakespeare’s Portia, the wonderful wife of Brutus, who was his equal in every way, casting her spell on me when I was a mere 16 year-old studying the play. How she loved Brutus and would not allow him to brush off her queries about what troubled him. She threw his dismissing excuses back at him with a logic and rhetorical beauty that anticipated the early ideals of modern feminism when she complained, “I have a man’s mind, but a women’s might.” Both news reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) and campaign intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) here resembling a slimmer Megan McCain, want to play with the big boys, but emulating only their most loathsome qualities. Ida is cynical and self-serving, while Molly can talk trash with the best of them and takes some pride in her sexual conquests. Except when the film likes to do a 180 and portray her as a victim. I think they get the types right, but it’s hard to like either of them.
Everything here, from the language to the players, is demeaned and diminished into a sordid pettiness, a cynicism verging on nihilism. Unlike Shakespeare, where ambition is washed clean with bloody corpses littering the stage, there are very few real consequences for our malefactors in The Ides of March. The culture of corruption does not weaken or die. It flourishes. And yes, there is nonetheless a certain ironic beauty in that.
Our film takes place in Ohio, with much of the filming being in Cleveland and at Miami of Ohio University. It’s about politics, with the title a reference to that classical political thriller, Julius Caesar, penned some 400 years ago by none other than William Shakespeare. And we all know politics is a blood sport, don’t we?
There’s plenty of the real stuff, along with literal daggers in the back, in Shakespeare’s play. The back stabbing here is mostly figurative. What better drink to go along with this blood sport than a Bloody Mary, this one gleaned from a restaurant in the Buckeye state. Here are a few toasts to go along with it.
“Here’s to sweethearts and wives. And may they never meet.”
"We may not always get what we want, we may not always get what we need, just so long as we don't get what we deserve."
Buckeye Bloody Mary
- 1 (46 fluid ounce) bottle tomato-vegetable juice cocktail
- 1 1/2 lemons, juiced
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon steak sauce
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon prepared horseradish
- 1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon celery salt
In a large pitcher, combine juice cocktail, lemon juice and brown sugar. Season with Worcestershire sauce, horseradish, hot sauce and celery salt. Cover, and refrigerate 8 to 12 hours to allow flavors to meld.
Serve with 16 ounces of vodka with a stalk of celery in each high ball glass.
Recipe Source: allrecipes.com