The problem? In two words: the ending.
(As always, be warned that there are spoilers ahead.)
This movie raises the question I often ask, which is: is it possible to love a film and not like the ending?
I really liked this film all the way until Steve (Ryan Gosling) was on the set waiting to talk about the big news that his boss “the governor” had secured the Democratic nomination prior to the Ohio primary. When the film faded to black without him uttering a word, my feelings about this film faded as well.
To be more specific, this film vioIated William Goldman’s rule for endings, namely that they be “surprising and satisfying”.
I suppose that it was surprising that Steve had corrupted himself in the process of securing the top job in the governor’s campaign following the intern's death and his firing. However, that same transformation is what made the ending unsatisfying to me. That and Clooney’s failure to take a stand and make it clear that Steve had truly corrupted himself. (Of course, it was hardly gratifying that Molly, the intern who slept with both Steve and the governor, became the tragic victim of both men.)
Now you may disagree with my assessment of the outcome here, but I attended this film with someone who is both educated and intelligent. When it was over, they were actually convinced that Steve was going to go on in the interview and reveal the governor’s affair and the whole sordid process that had taken place. My friend wasn’t alone in this belief. As we left the theater, I heard others discussing “what was going to happen” as well, revealing similar disagreements among them.
Here’s why I think Steve was thoroughly corrupted and was not going to blow the whistle on the governor: simply put, to do so would mean the end of his career in politics. First of all, if he did reveal the affair and everything around it, the governor would no doubt lose the nomination. Senator Thompson, his chosen running mate, would get taken down in the crossfire as well. That would leave Senator Pullman as the eventual nominee, something Steve clearly didn’t want. Moreover, Steve would be admitting to criminal behavior (extortion), leaving him potentially at risk of prosecution, not to mention killing all of his career prospects. If he wanted to do all that, he could have done so with the recordings on the phone and not have gone through the whole deal between the governor and the running mate.
So why did Clooney choose not to have Steve speak at all and create the confusion that some had with this ending? Beats me. It’s the Up in the Air ending all over again. And that’s what sunk that film eventually at award time.
I believe that there was a perfect opportunity for Clooney to have Steve say something and settle the matter completely. It also would have been a nice bookend with the opening scene, where Steve, as a sound check, mutters the governor’s future speech without emotion. Except in that instance, while he may have appeared bored, we soon learned that he was completely sold on the governor as political savior.
At the end, had Steve spoken to the reporter without revealing any of the truth regarding Molly’s death, he would once again be speaking without emotion, only we would know for certain that he had become corrupt, just like Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti).
I believe that showing the naive and pretty intern coming to work on the campaign just prior to Steve sitting for the interview was meant to show the contrast between the Steve-before-Molly and the Steve at the end. But I’m not sure everyone got it. So why not just have Steve say a few meaningless words and settle the matter?
You may disagree, but for me, The Ides of March provides further proof that one can't truly love a film while disliking the ending.