In My Opinion: The Ides of March (or the girl, the abortion, and the aftermath)

The first half of this post is straight-up plot summary. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and don’t want to know any spoilers, skedaddle.

I saw The Ides of March last Friday; for the most part, I absolutely loved it. It’s much more cynical than most of my favorite movies, but it was so well done that I couldn’t resist. It was directed by George Clooney; the cast that the power of his name gathered is fantastic.

Ryan Gosling is Stephen Myers, an extraordinarily idealistic press consultant working on the presidential campaign of Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney). In the opening scene of the movie, Myers is working on a  sound check just before a debate that is to be televised.  Quoting a speech of Morris’s, he says “I’m not a Christian, I’m not an atheist, I’m not a Muslim, I’m not Jewish. I believe in the American Constitution.” Morris may believe in the Constitution, but Myers believes in Morris. He tells a journalist covering the race that Morris has to become president… that it will change the world for the better if he is elected. He’s very passionate. In fact, he’s a little obsessed.

The events in the movie occur in the five days before the Democratic Primary in Ohio. Early in the film, the importance of the Ohio choice of Democratic candidate is emphasized: as Ohio goes, so goes the nation. The stakes are very high.

Senator Mike Morris is a little remote; as a presidential candidate his actions and words are the focus of everyone around him, everything he does seems a bit modified and constrained by an awareness of this. But he seems to be a basically good guy. Early in the movie, he explains his decision not to allow Senator Thompson, a crooked but extremely powerful politician, a place on his party ticket. He says that there are lines in the sand that you just can’t move. He references several political tactics that he previously had intended not to use, but has since utilized (negative ads being the only one I can recall mentioned, but that type of thing), but says that allowing Senator Thompson on the ticket will put him over that invisible line.

Molly Sterns is a campaign intern, beautifully played by Even Rachel Wood. She’s been working on Morris’s campaign for a while—she reminds a completely oblivious Stephen that they’ve worked together before. He kind of fumbles and asks if she’d changed something. Maybe her hair? She hadn’t.

Upon this triangle of characters, Senator Mike Morris, Stephen Myers and Molly Sterns, the action of the movie operates.

The initial banter during which Molly reminds Stephen of their previous meetings leads to the beginning of a relationship. One night, while they are asleep in bed together, a phone rings, waking Stephen who automatically answers it. When a male voice responds then hangs up, Stephen realizes he has grabbed the wrong cell phone. Stephen laughingly—then insistently—demands an explanation from Molly. She starts getting a little frantic, he calls the number back… and it goes to the senator’s phone.

The story comes out: earlier in the campaign, she took some paperwork up to the senator late at night. They were talking, and then, well, they weren’t talking. It happened only once; she ends up pregnant. Earlier in the day she had called the senator, needing money for an abortion.

Stephen is horrified, not by Molly’s condition (that doesn’t really seem to register), but by the toppling of his idol. He immediately goes into manage-and-suppress mode, telling Molly to make plans to go home, gathering cash for her abortion and plane ticket, taking her to the clinic, promising to pick her up after.

While she’s at the clinic, golden boy Stephen is fired. He made a foolish decision, met with someone from the opposition’s campaign, a journalist is threatening to go public with the information about the meeting. Morris knows about and approved of his dismissal. To Stephen, this is a personal betrayal—everything he believed in has disintegrated. He takes the incendiary story of the pregnant intern to the opposition, but is unable to exchange information for a job.

After calling Stephen several times for the promised ride, Molly takes a cab back to the hotel where she hears about the campaign dramatics that she missed. She panics. She suspects that he’s going to “do something crazy” with her story; hours later, when she is still unable to reach him on his phone, she overdoses on alcohol and the pills she was given at the clinic and dies.

Stephen arrives moments after the body has been discovered. He stares in horror at the twisted corpse on the floor for a few long moments, then pockets her phone and leaves unnoticed. 

Later, the now-unemployed Stephen uses Molly’s phone to call Senator Morris in the middle of press conference about the unexpected and tragic death of the campaign intern. He gets a private interview with Morris in the back of an empty restaurant kitchen. This is the first time in the movie that Morris isn’t “acting the politician”—during the rest of the movie, he’s surrounded by journalists and campaign advisors and interns and press secretaries. But here we see another layer, a deeper layer, of Morris. And he’s still basically a good guy. He’s smarter, he’s more ruthless than expected, he doesn’t plan to let his campaign or his life be derailed by the tragic death of one intern who just happened to be pregnant by him… ok, maybe he’s not a good guy. But it is apparent that he’s just managing the crisis as well as he can—he’d have chosen a different outcome for the Molly situation, and perhaps even the Stephen situation—but this is what he’s got.

The two men, squaring off in the empty kitchen, reminded me of a scene from some old western.There’s a kind of submerged threat of violence (all those knives and bare metal surfaces!) but it’s completely subject to their intelligence. Morris tries to determine what Stephen actually has on him—there is no paperwork, no DNA tests are possible now—but in the end succumbs to the threat to his career.

Stephen successfully leverages his way into his superior’s position (getting him fired) and blackmails Morris into offering the dirty politician a place on the party ticket, ensuring Morris’s presidential candidacy and Stephen’s career. The movie ends as an eerily expressionless Stephen waits in an empty gymnasium to talk to the press about the Democratic Primary results in Ohio.

Phew, that’s a lot of plot summary. And I just focused on the information that I needed. Stephen’s boss, Philip Seymour Hoffman, was brilliant as the honorable guy that gets stabbed in the back. Paul Giamatti was perfect in the slightly smarmy and completely untrustworthy role of opposition press consultant. Marisa Tomei is a manipulative journalist who is also just being used. There are other ways to tell the plot of this movie that would focus on all of their machinations, but I wanted to talk about… you guessed it… the girl, the abortion and the aftermath.

I was most interested in Molly Sterns. While not entirely thrilled with the presentation of her situation, it was rather well done. She wants an abortion and (gasp) she’s not a raging nymphomaniac—she seems normal. Let me restate that, once more, just to let it sink in. Because that’s a rather shocking statement: she’s a normal girl who wants an abortion. I love that they didn’t demonize that decision. She wasn’t presented as a “bad girl” or particularly “fast” or “forward” (what does that even mean?) or anything other than a cute girl interested in a hot guy at work. The dialogue with Gosling—as they flirt back and forth, as she invites him for drinks at her hotel, as their budding relationship progresses—could have been lifted from any workplace romance movie.

Even after we know that she’s pregnant, her presentation didn’t change. She admits that she was a little drunk when it happened—but not that drunk. It was just a stupid mistake.

And even—get this, because it isn’t what I expected—it isn’t some episode of deep-seated guilt after the abortion that drives her to suicide. It’s fear that her story will be used—that she will be used—as a political maneuver. And it’s a very rational fear. Stephen tries to do just that. In fact, Stephen does do just that. Her corpse becomes a noose that Stephen dangles above Morris’s head. But all of that is separate from the abortion. She didn’t kill herself because she got an abortion. She didn’t need an abortion because she was a slut* (Kudos, George.)

In a larger sense, I hate how used she is in the movie. She is this intelligent and beautiful girl who turns out to be so much less important than what she means politically. But that’s kind of the point—my discomfort with her end is assumed. I’m gonna be pissed when Stephen, who was sleeping with her barely fifteen minutes ago (screen time), tries to sell her story. It’s a huge betrayal. It’s an acknowledged betrayal. We’re supposed to understand how completely he’s been shattered by the depths to which he sinks.

I thought the movie was great. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not my usual fare. Honestly, I watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington later that night to kind of restore my faith in… whatever I have faith in. But the movie was so well done. Gosling didn’t overplay his emotional disintegration—it’s just kind of there, behind his eyes. It’s rather wrenching. Clooney is this suave figurehead of a candidate until the moment when he’s fighting for his career and the façade cracks away to reveal the human inside. Fantastic. And I hate that Molly was basically a trading card. But I love that she wasn’t a crazy, slutty trading card.

And that’s my opinion.

*I’m consciously employing this rather loaded term to designate society’s conception of the type of girl who might need an abortion. Hopefully it’s obvious that I don’t agree that only “that type of girl” might need an abortion, nor would I ever use that word for an individual, regardless of sexual choices. But it’s effective in describing the space in which sexually active women have been conscribed.