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How to Beware the Ides of March

by Sean Malin Mar 14, 2013

The world’s most (un)pleasant international holiday is fast-approaching, and hopefully you’ve purchased the proper materials in celebration.

Every year around this time, fat men in togas begin to meet and whisper suspiciously with one another. Downtrodden servants from faraway lands begin wheeling vats of foot-stomped wine into Corinthian-columned halls. I recommend picking up some olive branch head-wreaths and perhaps some recently sharpened silver cutlery, if only so you will fit in.

You’ll need these items to prepare for March 15, one of two major dates in the Gregorian calendar that centers on a significant historical individual’s murder (the other falls this year on Friday, March 29). A couple thousand years ago, Julius Caesar went to a Senate meeting with his second-in-command, Brutus, and a bunch of other powerful Rome bureaucrats.

Caesar was a pretty wild dude, especially when it came to exerting power over arguably the most significant empire in the history of the Western world. He spread some resources thin. He ticked about 60 guys off. So in 44 BC, according to Plutarch, according to Wikipedia, according to some troll named “FartLord44” who edits Wiki-posts from his/her mother’s basement, members of the Senate went, “Whoa! We’re stabbing Jules right now!” They did. He was like, “Ow, I’m dead.”

At the time I’m writing this article, it has now been more than 2,050 years since that event; yet every calendar I own has “The Ides of March” listed directly under “March 15.” Because of Caesar’s inconceivable international prominence, his effect on major cultural and historical movements, and his pervasive public image, several millennia have not been enough to forget his death. Thus, each year Western culture memorializes the assassination of one of history’s most influential figures.

Clooney’s film glorifies the exciting, intense, aggressive instinct for betrayal at the heart of human nature.

The remnants of the Ides of March go deeper into our media and our psyches than perhaps we recognize. I consider most powerfully in support of this concept the recent eponymous holiday-themed film, The Ides of March (2011), directed by Master-of-all-Things George Clooney. In Clooney’s film, which he also co-wrote with screenwriters Beau Willimon and Grant Heslov, and which he also produced, a handsome, ambitious campaign manager becomes embroiled in a sex scandal initiated by the Presidential candidate he supports. The candidate’s unrepentant attitude and total duplicity towards the campaign manager leads first to a confrontation — an amazing scene set in a convention center kitchen with two fine actors — and then to a complete betrayal.

Like its namesake, Clooney’s film glorifies the exciting, intense, aggressive instinct for betrayal at the heart of human nature. It helps that he cast himself as the Presidential candidate — the very face of modern Western-style philanthropy, humility, and aging beauty is turned evil in the movie.

His ambitious employee, though, is better cast, such that as soon as I mention the actor’s name, most readers will catch the suggestion of Brutus Incarnate. The campaign manager is played in red, white, and blue ties, with hair slicked back, and with a small-time office romantic streak, by Ryan Gosling. As Gosling’s character steadily moves towards the destruction of his mentors, Clooney, Willimon, and Heslov build to a climax as tense and riveting (and just as morally complicated!) as any action film.

While Clooney might not seem the type of filmmaker to make a movie about the holiday season, he semi-consciously taps into a celebration — or at the very least, a personification — of the second-most famous backstabber in civilized history. His Ides of March is no different than Christmas With The Kranks (2004) in this way: a problematic love letter to an American holiday. I would not be surprised to learn that Heslov, with whom George writes and produces many of his movies, was secretly polishing a pirate saber when Clooney and Willimon hung out at Peet’s Coffee on writing days.

We can all learn from his (possible) example — when we let the Ides into our lives, we too can worry about being murdered by our closest confidantes, or upsetting a room full of overweight Roman senators.

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