The end of The Ides of March explained

This post is co-authored by our friend Zeeshan Aziz.

There is an argument for an “idealistic ending”, and an argument for a “realistic” ending to the Ides of March.

The Idealistic Ending (Chris)

To understand the end of Ides of March, we have to put the movie into context.

Ides is a movie adaptation of the play Farragut North. The play ends with Stephen being fired. The movie, obviously, continues on. And this is why the title is different.

“Beware the Ides of March” is the prophetic line from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. This is spoken by a seer to Caesar. Idus is latin for “half”. So the “half of March” or March 15. This is the day Caesar was assassinated. Have you ever heard the line “Et tu, Brute?” (You too, Brutus?) This is the supposed dying words of Julius after a group of his critics jumped him and stabbed him. This group, to Caesar’s dismay, included his friend: Marcus Brutus.

Shakespeare dramatized the friendship between Brutus and Caesar. Caesar was Brutus’s friend! How could Brutus kill him!? But Caesar was tyrannical and there were rumors he would make Rome a monarchy. Brutus was caught between trusting his friend or saving the republic.

The reason the movie is called The Ides of March and not Farragut North is for the comparison to Shakespeare. And the comparison to Shakespeare is a reference to the assassination of Caesar. Do you see how this fits with our movie?

Stephen (Ryan Gosling) is Brutus. Governor Morris (George Clooney) is Julius Caesar. Shakespeare’s play, as with Clooney’s film, casts Brutus as the protagonist.

Brutus betrayed Caesar, so I think we can extrapolate that Stephen betrays Morris. The clue to this, the title aside, comes as Stephen is, at the end of the movie, sitting in the chair, waiting for the live TV interview to start. A clip of Morris is playing. It’s a speech about decency, about honor, about doing the right thing. Morris’s words happen to also be the topics on Stephen’s mind. It’s a deft touch of irony. But also foreshadowing. And elucidation of Stephen’s thoughts, which we’re never really privy to.

Leading up to this, Stephen blackmails Moore to get Paul Zara’s (Seymour Hoffman) job of campaign manager. Stephen had been fired by Zara days before. We think that Stephen is doing what he’s doing because he’s “playing politics”, leveraging position to get back at Zara and further his own career. But that’s not it. Stephen feels guilty about Molly’s suicide (note the scene where he cries in the car). He’s angry at himself, but he also blames Governor Morris for not being the flawless leader Stephen thought he was.

Stephen had looked up to Morris as one would a superhero. He thought Morris was above everything, was greater than the average political scum, was the leader of leaders. And yet Morris is flawed enough, stupid enough, so f*cking cliche as to sleep with the hot intern. Stephen didn’t care about his career anymore. He wanted revenge. For Molly. For himself. In order to achieve this, he had to have the right position. If he had remained fired and had spilled the beans, the story would have died. “He’s a disgruntled ex-employee. He’s mad that he was fired. Governor Morris would never do such a thing, that’s hogwash.” So he plays politics. He has Morris anoint him campaign manager. And then he stabs Morris in the back.

The movie ends prior to the fulfillment of its climax. Thus the climax is haunting the way an unfinished song is. “Row, row, row your—.” Even though it’s unspoken, the word “boat” resounds.

As it is with the song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, repetition is a major motif of Ides of March: the hot interns; the young, thirsty campaign assistants; both Zara and his rival (played by Paul Giamatti) tell anecdotes about older situations that are similar to current situations; Tomei tells Stephen all politicians are alike, that Morris will disappoint Stephen (which, abstractly, cites the same cyclical nature of politics, the closed-system that it is, cultivating the same problems and personalities again and again); Morris sleeping with another woman (Molly) is the same problem of dozens of politicians; the line “Are you a Bearcat?” is even repeated. Stephen’s ultimate act, then, is to break the cyclic nature of the political game by “doing the right thing” when no one else will.

The argument the movie makes is that in order to change the zeitgeist of the institution we must change not only the types of players but also the way the game is played. Integrity has to be more than a mere sound bite or ideal.

The Realistic Ending (Zeeshan)

Let me start by saying that I really appreciate Chris’ take on the ending of what I consider to be one of the best movies of 2011. And it most certainly speaks to the credit of the masterful screenplay that it allows an argument to be made for both sides. That being said, I disagree, respectfully of course. While I can certainly appreciate the possibility of Ryan’s character making such an idealistic turn and taking the moral high ground, I simply don’t find it plausible. 

This movie, in my opinion, is simply an acknowledgement of the back-room, cut-throat nature of campaign politics. A testament to the lack of moral fiber in all parties involved, regardless of their political affiliations. A major point Ides of March tried to make was that corruption is not the exclusive domain of right wing conservatives, and that liberals are equally capable of playing in the mud. And aside from the fact that Paul Giamatti’s character quite literally complains about it, this is evident in the transition of George Clooney’s character. I’m somewhat tempted to make a comparison to Obama and his ’08 campaign, where he ran on a platform for change, and was devoid of any constituent imposed restraints. Then slowly but surely he continued to move the “line in the sand.” Finally after several donations from the “Banks and Big Pharmas”, you realize that much like Clooney’s intern banging/bribing candidate, he is just another politician.

If you recall, there is a scene in the beginning of the movie, where Tomei, Gosling, and Hoffman are discussing the Ohio primary. The exchange between Tomei and Gosling was, to me, key. Ryan talks about his past campaigns and how this time “he has the one”. Tomei completely disregarded and dismissed this notion, telling him that his man is just another drone that will occupy the big, white house for 4, maybe 8 years and then it’s on to the next one. And about 70 minutes later Ryan figures this out as well. Whats important to note is that Ryan admits to having played dirty politics before, but he is simply blindsided by Clooney’s appeal. Still, Ryan’s character lives for politics, while he has his principles, he’s still pragmatic.The Ides of March, the not so subtle reference to the assassination of Caesar, is being taken quite literally I’m afraid. Generally “beware the Ides of March” is a proverb that really is just a warning of impending danger. Just like Caesar was stabbed by several of his confidantes, Ryan is quickly betrayed by everyone around him. Giamatti didn’t care one way or another how Ryan’s situation played out, and Hoffman fired him. Which considering what Ryan did might’ve been appropriate, but Hoffman leveraged it in a way that would disgrace Ryan in the media and help the campaign. This is an utter disregard of human compassion from a man who ironically is preaching about loyalty. But the deadliest stab comes from the governor himself. Who aside from being an adulterer, as it turns out “is okay” with letting Gosling go that way.

Ryan is ultimately faced with two choices. Either he packs his bags, goes on vacation and mass blasts resumes to overpriced consulting firms or he conforms. The way I see it, he does the latter. He picks himself up, gets back on the horse and plays the game better than anyone else. As Clooney’s speech plays in the background, “integrity matters, doing the right thing matters…” the camera zooms in on Ryan and the movie ends. It is the ultimate statement about the current state of out political system and the naked truth of the absurdity in campaigning. As much as we want “good guys” in politics, there just isn’t any room for them. As much as I can see the appeal of wanting to believe that Ryan’s character had an epiphany and decided to turn the political world on its head, I just don’t see it. This movie was about the disintegration of idealism and not the other way around.

PS. I saw a comment regarding the intern who appeared in the end and someone suggested that she was Molly with different hair. That is quite absurd. The intern serves as further evidence that the system is still churning. She’s just another hot intern, and the guy who’s giving her the phone begins flirting with her the same way Ryan flirts with Molly. “Are you a Bearcat?”

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