The Cycle of Sin in “The Ides of March”

The rapper Jay-Z collaborated with Coldplay on a remix of their song “Lost”.  In the song, the lyrics speak of the inevitable backlash of success, especially in the public eye.  In this remix, a full verse is devoted to the gifted hip-hop artist who says:

With the same sword they knight you / they gon’ good night you with
[…] That’s only half what they might do
[…] See success and its outcome
See Jesus, see Judas
See Caesar, see Brutus
See success is like suicide
Suicide, it’s a suicide
If you succeed, prepare to be crucified

There’s a sting that comes with those lyrics, not simply because of the name-dropping, but because there is a sliver of fear attached with them.  The grand stories of history are littered with the rise-and-falls of tycoons and moguls, and I think most of us, when pressed, would admit to having similar fears about our own aspirations.  There’s something upsetting about the possibility of losing all the things for which we have worked so hard.

Especially if it was for a noble cause.

And especially if we’re the ones to blame.

Primary Behavior

George Clooney’s fierce political thriller “The Ides of March” is about a group of politicians and journalists and campaign workers that find themselves at the brink of losing it all.  What’s worse, some of them will look in the mirror and see Brutus staring back at them.

In the film, Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) is running in the democratic primary for president against Senator Pullman (Mike Mantell).  The Ohio primary is fast approaching and this key state will likely determine the outcome of the general election.  On Morris’ staff is campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and, the film’s hero, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling).

At 30-years-old, Stephen is already a seasoned campaign strategist.  He understands the political game and knows how to play janitor in the wake of a politician’s mess.

But this is his first presidential campaign and even Stephen cannot anticipate the scope of the backstabbing and deceit.

In the days before the Ohio election, Senator Pullman’s campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) calls Stephen and asks for a private meeting.  This suspicious gesture makes Stephen nervous, but he decides that meeting with Duffy could actually be in the interest of his own campaign.

During this time, Stephen also falls into a casual relationship with Molly (Evan Rachel Wood).  Gosling and Wood have major onscreen chemistry, most notably in a scene where they table-talk over drinks at a bar.  The extremely charming opening scenes of their relationship make the outcome all the more unpalatable.  In Molly, Stephen gets much more than he bargained for – not simply a well-spoken strategist in bloom, but a girl who has been broken by a recent sin so great that she’s about to fall apart.

Early on we’re right to feel a lot of admiration for most of the characters in “The Ides of March”.  They are disciplined, ambitious and experienced.  But by the end, each one is exposed.  The success of it all – or rather, the possibility of success – drives each of them toward heinous behavior.

Et tu, Brute?

I admire Clooney’s skill as a director here.  Even after several of the main characters have revealed some of their more subversive motives, we still hold out for the rest of them.  What surfaces in the middle of this political narrative is a sophisticated study of human deceit, and the study is multi-layered.

Consider Hoffman’s character, Paul, a well-respected campaign manager.  In one scene Paul says, “There’s only one thing I value in this world, and that’s loyalty.  Without it, you’re nothing.”  This standard Paul creates is absolute, and there is no chance for repentance once that loyalty has been breached.  Stephen learns this the hard way in one scene as Paul casually undercuts all of Stephen’s work and skill in politics.  So what was once an admirable standard for loyalty spirals into a sanctimonious excuse for humiliating Stephen to his core.  That’s deceitful.

Stephen is caught in his own deceitfulness.  One of the film’s themes is belief – in a person or cause or value system – and Stephen believes that since Mike Morris is such a man of integrity the campaign must be successful.  “Nothing bad happens when you’re doing the right thing,” he says.  He is convinced Morris is a good man, the right man for the job.  Stephen has built a monument to Mike Morris in his mind, and with each passing moment, he sacrifices more at the altar.  That’s deceitful too, just another form of it.

Then, of course, there is Molly, the guilt-ridden campaign intern – spinning her own web of deceit, although we may treat her with more sympathy than the others.  And Duffy, the rival campaign manager – loyal to his campaign so much so that he will destroy the reputation of anyone who stands in the way.  There’s also Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), a politician so fickle in his loyalties it’s puke-worthy.

Around and around it goes.  This cycle of sin.

You see the problem with Stephen is that he thinks he can clean up everyone’s mess.  There are stains, however, that are too penetrating to remove.  Stephen learns this one painful lesson at a time, and by the end he will very nearly be the one pulling the knife out of someone’s back.

The True Ides of March

Movies like this work on a dramatic level because they allow us to witness the corruption process happen right there in front of us and, let’s face it, we love watching it.  We’ll scoff and say, “I’m glad that’s in a movie and not the norm.”  But the terrible truth is that we are all prone to the same desires and behavior, and although our actions may not reach the level of nastiness portrayed in “The Ides of March”, our thoughts and motives testify to its validity.

I’m reminded of the psalmist in Psalm 52: “Your tongue plots destruction; it is like a sharpened razor, you who practice deceit.  You love evil rather than good, falsehood rather than speaking the truth.  You love every harmful word, O you deceitful tongue!”

And again in Psalm 53: “God looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.  Everyone has turned away, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

That second psalm is quoted directly by Paul in Romans 3 as he expertly unveils the true condition of the human race.  His diagnosis: we’re all bad.

We should all humbly acknowledge our proneness toward Brutus-like behavior.  We build monuments to our own Caesars and Mike Morris’s, but when their pitfalls threaten our success, we brandish the knife.  Ask President Obama his thoughts on this subject.

But more than all the treachery of any politician or literary figure, there remains for us a permanent example of betrayal.  It is in the kiss of Judas Iscariot betraying Jesus with a gesture of friendship.

Only Jesus was not a failure.

And Jesus was who he said he was, and did what he promised he would do.  And Jesus didn’t go to the cross for our political or social benefit.  He went to the cross to clean up all our messes once and for all.  He came to expose the Judas in all of us and incline our hearts toward him – the worthy object of our unworthy worship.  At the cross, Jesus was making a mockery of our foolish monuments.  No one told him to beware the ides of March; he didn’t need a warning.  He accepted betrayal of his own volition and in doing so he ended the cycle of our sin.

The final moments of “The Ides of March” are harrowing.  We end on a close-up of one of the key players and a question is asked of him: “Tell us how you got here.”  That question hangs in the air like a foul stench.

A similar question will be asked of me one day.  How will I answer?  How will you?

*****

This essay is also featured on TMC’s Artist Circle blog in a series that explores cinema from a biblical worldview.  View that blog here.

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Fear & Boredom in “The Future”


Thy Kingdom Come

At the beginning of this year, I studied the Sermon on the Mount with more clarity than I ever had before.   When I arrived at Matthew 6:9-13, which is Jesus’ model for prayer, I found that I could barely say the words “thy kingdom come” without profound discomfort and unease.  This request, coming from my mouth, was so disturbing because it meant that I was praying for Christ to come and end it all – time, my dreams and goals, my life as I know it.

We are generally OK with the Bible’s handling of our past.  If the Bible says all my past failures are washed away, well then, that’s great.  But when the Bible begins to tamper with my future – well then, that’s something different altogether.  Why?  Because the future feels like it belongs to each of us in a subjective way.

Statistically speaking, I have more future ahead of me than past behind me, which means that in those moments when the future reveals itself to be totally uncertain, it especially feels like my world is falling apart, bit by bit.

That is, at least in part, something of a hermeneutical key to understanding the new film “The Future”.

The Future

Here’s a film that will fly through a limited release with hardly a drop of fanfare.  It’s Miranda July’s “The Future”, a disproportionately whimsical film about a couple dealing their own uncertain futures.  In the film, writer/director July also stars as Sophie, a children’s dance teacher who apparently has no mastery over children or dance.  She lives with her longtime boyfriend, Jason, played by Hamish Linklater, who works for a technical services company.  He answers phones and helps customers with their computer problems.

There’s also Paw-Paw, an injured cat whom Sophie and Jason rescued and delivered to the veterinarian.  They were told the cat would only survive another six months, so they decided to adopt him for that period of time.  But, in the film’s opening minutes, Sophie and Jason learn that, if the cat becomes emotionally attached to them, she could live another five years.  They have 30 days before Paw-Paw is healthy enough to leave the vet, so they have that time to make their final decision.

And what a decision this becomes!  In the course of a few minutes, Sophie and Jason transform from happy soon-to-be owners of a kitty cat to a couple trapped in a situation in which this cat could consume their lives for the next five years – which, they observe, could very well be the rest of their lives.  “We’ll be 40 in five years,” says Sophie.  “Forty’s basically 50 and then… that’s it for us.”

Over the following weeks, the impending adoption date adds enough pressure to their relationship that each of them begins making impulsive decisions that seem innocuous enough, but yield disastrous consequences.

Conversations With The Moon

Don’t think for a moment that “The Future” is a run-of-the-mill film experience.  It’s about as far from that as possible.  I forgot to mention that Paw-Paw, the injured cat, narrates the film, and that a linear timeline is abandoned in the film’s third act, and that, at one point, Jason has a conversation with the moon (and the moon talks back).  Yes, all that, and more.  “The Future” is a film with a lot of good ideas that get the life squeezed out of them by its oppressive whimsy (kind of defeats the purpose, right?).

Here and there, there are little moments of greatness or nuggets of interesting ideas, but I can’t think of one that leads us anywhere beneficial.  This shouldn’t surprise us; Miranda July does a similar thing in her first, and no less strange, film “Me and You and Everyone We Know”.  Surely July has a unique artistic voice.  There’s no question there.  What I do question is her tendency (or is it more than a tendency?) to build a narrative platform on important, consequential themes and topics and then treat them as though they’re insignificant and inconsequential.

In “The Future”, this works against itself.  For instance, in the film, Sophie copes with her fears about the future by attempting to post one new dance online every day for 30 days.  This fizzles out pretty quickly, for which we can be thankful since the dance sequences are some of the most painfully awkward moments of the whole movie.  So then she pursues an odd friendship with a man she met only briefly.  This turns into a sexual relationship (also very awkward) and is the next stage of deterioration in her relationship with Jason.

And that’s about all the viewer can say about those events.  They find no culmination, no dénouement, and certainly no satisfaction.  I wouldn’t complain about this if it didn’t seem like the movie was copping out.  But the movie does cop out.  By taking itself so lightly, by piling the whimsy on so thickly, “The Future” undermines itself.  This isn’t a fearless movie (as so many critics have claimed).  On the contrary, it’s covered in fear.

Worse than all of this, “The Future” is boring.  That should be the last thing this movie is. The last 20 minutes of the movie confirm what must be July’s fear that the future will be dull.  If that was her point, then bravo.  Wild success.

Might I suggest that a Christian worldview blows a film like this to smithereens?  On one hand, the film on the whole comes off as tragically shallow.  Commitment is farcical in the world of “The Future”.  That might explain why Sophie and Jason are happily unmarried.  It might also explain why the thought of adopting the cat for longer than they originally planned turns their worlds upside down.  Indeed the only character that affirms commitment in any way is an old man name Joe, who is seen as a man losing his grasp on reality.  (This same actor gives voice to the moon, which at one point confesses to Jason, “I don’t know anything.  I’m just a rock in the sky.”)

On the other hand, “The Future” does something far worse.  With all its whimsy it is actually a fairly safe movie, as far as risk-taking goes.  It will feel to the viewer like it’s taking big risks, but I would suggest that it’s not.  It asks some questions, then somewhere along the line it gets sidetracked, and that’s when the boredom sets in.  This movie has no categories for “Thy kingdom come”.  If it did, it wouldn’t be boring.  It has no characters that see the future for what it should be – intimidating and uncertain, sure, but also gloriously secure.  That’s why we can say, “Thy kingdom come”, and have no fear.

The future, for Christians, is not soaked in boredom, but in thrills and constant fascination.  That’s why, “The Future”, for this Christian, is a failure

*****

This essay is also featured on TMC’s Artist Circle blog in a series that explores cinema from a biblical worldview.  View that blog here.

The Artist Circle at TMC

The blog for The Moody Church’s Artist Circle recently published an essay I wrote on “The Tree of Life”.  The essay includes several points I made in the blog post here.  Click here to read it.

While you’re there on the Artist Circle blog, take a look around.  For artists (of all kinds) in the Church, The Artist Circle at The Moody Church provides a good model for using one’s artistic capabilities for the edification of God’s people.  I serve as one of the film representatives for the AC and it’s hard to overestimate how encouraging and challenging this group has been for me.  It’s self-described mission statement is:

To provide meaningful connections between artists for mutual encouragement, accountability and mentorship. As the network grows, the Artist Circle can expand with opportunity for artists to enhance corporate worship, events to cultivate an awareness and appreciation for the arts within the church, and to engage and shape culture through compelling art that is borne out of a Biblical worldview.

Bookmark the website.  I encourage you to check it often as Mark Walczak continues to post original content and new recommendations.