If politics is the art of the possible, art about politics is an inventory of the most appalling possibilities. The taint of compromise—the incremental moral-compass adjustments that have despoiled all the king's men and the president's men and the candidates, Manchurian or otherwise—accrues in The Ides of March until it is impossible to pinpoint the moment when the hero's soul became a bargaining chip. This is a movie about the place where campaigning loses its idealistic purity, and consequently leaks all pleasure. It is probably a bit hysterical in its bleakness—maybe that's a predictable outcome of a proudly liberal filmmaker like George Clooney dealing with the concessions of a Democratic POTUS. But the disillusionment in Ides has an evangelical fervor: This movie is going to find your Shepard Fairey poster and set it on fire. It's like an anti-Bus Project.
That it corrodes so effectively is thanks to Clooney communicating the romance of the campaign trail, which is basically summer camp for drizzle-loving workaholic wonks. Ryan Gosling, continuing his prolific year of playing hyper-aggressive grinners, is the media-strategy guru for Democratic presidential front-runner Mike Morris (Clooney). Ides is based on Farragut North, a play written by Beau Willimon, which means Morris is based on Willimon's former boss, Howard Dean, who was in turn based on The West Wing's Josiah Bartlett (or sure seemed that way, for a while). The early stretches of the movie have the wish-fulfillment and intellectual energy of Aaron Sorkin's series: The banter between Gosling and intern Evan Rachel Wood (for once, not preternaturally jaded) has the particular energy of two people aroused by their own smarts. This makes it all the more flooring when players reveal their primary colors—when Philip Seymour Hoffman's campaign manager, to use a milder example, turns out to be a morally preening prick.
But human fallibility is not the point. The point of The Ides of March—a very "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" kind of moral—is that every social advancement is built on the back of an unknown, innocent victim. It's an observation difficult for an Oregon progressive to deny, and Clooney's direction moves the chamber piece at such a ruthless pace that objection is impossible. But the pessimism makes this more of a horror movie than a social analysis. It is a very good horror movie, and its savage iconoclasm is bracing. But it does make you wonder why art about politics keeps its possibilities so limited. R.
83 SEE IT: The Ides of March opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Cinetopia, Cornelius, City Center, Evergreen, Fox Tower, Lloyd Center, Sherwood, Tigard and Wilsonville.