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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Costly Freelancing

Last night I attended a small meeting of freelance film and TV folks in the Loop.  The purpose of the meeting was to share insights into the world of film/TV freelancing, so four panelists answered a series of questions from a moderator.  They navigated the world of freelancing by telling how they got started, the journey since then, and where they currently stand in “the business”.

The panelists shared several gems of good information, but I had heard almost all of it during the countless hours of lectures and seminars I attended during film school.  But hearing this all over again was not what made me angry.  While I sat there taking notes and listening intently, I slowing began to understand the reality of what I was hearing.  Each panelist contributed to what became a large description of the ideal worker – the person who will always get hired or asked back or recommended later on.  These were some of the requirements.

“There are no sick days for a freelancer,” they said.  “You cannot get sick!  You won’t be attending any wedding six months from now!  Don’t attempt to plan any sort of vacation!  There’s no consistency in this business; plan to work a month or more without a day off!   I hope you can do your own taxes perfectly!  The IRS will find all your mistakes!  The divorce rate is high in this business; you might not want to get married!”

Eventually I stopped taking notes because I realized they had described a superhuman.  Their ideal worker is a person who actually does not exist outside of comic books and fantasy movies, and striving to meet the expectations they laid out will surely lead to some kind of disaster.

They even articulated this point.  One panelist told the story of a former Green Beret who became an audio technician in the film/TV industry.  He couldn’t keep up with his taxes.  Eventually the IRS froze his accounts and seized all of his belongings.  The man killed himself.  The story was obviously labeled a tragedy, but it didn’t faze the panelists.  It was like they’d heard it before and very nearly expected it to happen every once in awhile.

I’m coming to the end of Tim Keller’s helpful book Counterfeit Gods and, as providence would have it, I had just read his chapter on career idolatry right before the meeting.  The chapter is titled “The Seduction of Success” and in it Keller points out:

More than other idols, personal success and achievement lead to a sense that we ourselves are god, that our security and value rest in our own wisdom, strength, and performance.  To be the very best at what you do, to be at the top of the heap, means no one is like you.  You are supreme.  […]  One sign that you have made success an idol is the false sense of security it brings.  (p. 75)

Compounded, all the advice these panelists gave us was idolatrous.  What they expressed was a series of stringent requirements we must fulfill and, in the fulfilling of them, we can rest assured in our performance.  The money and work is never guaranteed, but as long as we perform, there’s some hope.

But idolatry doesn’t end with hope.  It ends with disaster.  It merely disguises itself as hope.  Sacrificing relationships and integrity on the altar of Almighty Career is a disaster, not a triumph.  Elsewhere in Counterfeit Gods, Keller recounts the downfall of several public figures like New York governor Eliot Spitzer, saying:

They had sacrificed everything to the god of success, but it wasn’t enough.  In ancient times, the deities were blood thirsty and hard to appease.  They still are.  (p. xiii)

So here’s what I actually learned at that meeting.  I learned that measuring up is one of the most alluring tasks in career building.  The simple act of proving oneself, left unchecked, is an act that will take us further and further inward, looking to ourselves for worth and wisdom and hope.  But our hope comes from the Lord, who gives us our power, the strength of our hands, and the ability to produce wealth (Deut. 8:18).  No, we must look outward.  We must look to God, who beckons us to measure up to him through the work of his Son, Jesus Christ, who perfectly measured up for us.  We must look to God because in the gospel, he shows us how thoroughly we fall short.  In the gospel, we see that our performance is not the means to fulfilling all the requirements; our performance is the result of Jesus fulfilling all the requirements for us.

If I find, in 50 years, that I have given up my friends and family, all my time and attention and attained great wealth and approval in film and TV, I will very quickly find that I gave it away for nothing.

*Note: Freelance film/TV is only a partial reality for me currently.  I have very little expertise on the subject itself.