It is not hard to think of Old George as a successful politician. He has the face, wit, and charm for the job. Probably miles more than anyone who currently has it.

Ides of March is less of a thriller and more of a morality play centering around the uncertain, dodgy world of contemporary politics. It’s also about the tug of war between idealism and cynicism, with the latter understandably and probably the strongest. Because it is being released in an odd time politically, especially in the States, and Ides plays off that a bit by presenting us with an idealized candidate for change, a politician who won’t make the backroom deals or descents into mud-slinging that are so common in modern democracies, only to slowly serve him up to the encroaching compromises, dirty deeds, and so on that he’s supposed to stand against.

Behind Mike Morris (George Clooney) is Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) a junior campaign manager who is touted by other characters as a virtuoso and the “brain trust” of Morris’s whole strategy. Throughout the film, we’re treated to Gosling playing a complicated but intelligent dude who proves to the audience that he is every bit the master manipulator we’re told he is. The interesting part is that we’re not happy to see Meyers keep a step ahead of everyone else since doing so requires the sacrifice of the positivity, idealism, and good karma that is built up in the first act of the film. There’s a buzz captured in Ides that nicely encapsulates something of what it must be like to be involved with not only a strong candidate, but one who you can believe in without reservation. This would be a completely different kind of movie if it stuck to this trajectory, indeed if things did not quickly become complicated, murky, and dark.

The bulk of the film is spent on intimate conversations like this one, and every actor involved is equal to the task of carrying such a talky movie.

It may be a bit of a spoiler to talk about the central conflict that forces Meyers’s back up against a wall where no choice is the nice choice that’s going to restore equilibrium to everything. Some in the audience probably expect that but they shouldn’t. This is a film where the protagonist falls, though not in as spectacular a fashion as in your average political thriller. No, Meyers falls in the most predictable and mundane of ways, giving in to the self-interest and cynicism that rules his world but has, thanks to the buffer of his belief, failed to corrupt him until the whole house of cards he’s helped build around Morris completely falls apart.

This is because Morris is human and prone to human failings derived from human desires. Meyers is, too. Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is not wrong when he tells Meyers that it’s pride that led him to take a meeting with rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), one which casts too much suspicion in too late a stage of the race Morris is in to be a minor mistake. As Meyers tells Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) at one point (and I here grossly paraphrase), the big leagues mean that one mistake puts you down. How Meyers uses everyone else’s mistakes to neutralize his is the evidence for the assertion that he’s a genius at political maneuvering. The theme here, however, is that this comes with a price.

Ultimately, Ides of March is a movie for actors. Every one of the acclaimed cast gets a chance to shine in sizzling speeches, dialogues, and in the spaces between. The stand-out is Ryan Gosling, of course, and this is exactly the kind of work that he excels at. Meyers is a charming, intelligent guy who is in love with what he does and still has that sparkle in his eye. Gosling gives him a veneer of innocent boyishness that serves to obfuscate the ticking political brain underneath. When push comes to shove and moves need making, Meyers is not the guy who hesitates. When threatened, he goes fully on the offensive. It would be rousing if it didn’t spell the doom of everything that makes him “one of the good ones”. Clooney pulls double-duty here as the director, co-writer, and supporting actor. We see a lot of him but he only gets a handful of scenes. This is good, too, keeping Morris the man and Morris the politician separate just enough that it doesn’t seem completely unbelievable that he would go Clinton.

The main supporting work comes from Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman, two of the great character actors. They mold  their performances and characters into mirror images of each other. They are both devious motherfuckers with complimentary sets of values. They just happen to be working on opposite sides of the aisle, at least until the primary is over and one of their guys gets in. Hoffman’s Paul Zara can be summed up by his very twisted (political) definition of loyalty. Between the scene where he buries Meyers and the one where he treats him like a friendly rival (near the end), Zara has the air of a veteran athlete and the poise of a gentleman forced at times to behave in an ungentlemanly manner. Giamatti’s Duffy gets less screen-time, but he too gets a scene that sums him up as he admits to Meyers that the kid has been seriously played. Between these two, we get a sense of dual mentors and there’s real resonance when Meyers tells Zara that he “learned from the best”.

Nice to see Evan Rachel Wood in another weighty movie. She’s so good she didn’t deserve to be wasted on her miniscule screentime in True Blood.

The cast is rounded out by several other actors; Marisa Tomei as Ida, a New York Times writer deeply embedded with Morris’s campaign. She’s great, as always, playing yet another player who perhaps pretends to be about something more. Still, she maneuvers with the best of them, unafraid to throw her “friends” under the bus for a scoop. She isn’t around much but Meyers’ sad assertion that she is his “best friend” (at the end of the film) is another small thing that tells you everything. Next is Evan Rachel Wood as Molly, the intern at the center of all the drama that fucks everything up. She is the only character where we’re left to wonder, is she a player or not? Is she playing Meyers when she starts up with him, hoping or knowing that he’s going to help her out at great personal risk? Is she the only genuine person in the entire fucking film? Who knows. It’s great to not know as it makes the character so much more interesting. Wood walks that line perfectly, too, never giving Molly completely away to the audience. The last character actor who shows up is Jeffrey Wright as a senator that Morris doesn’t want aboard but may need. Wright’s Senator Thompson is representative of the kind of fucked up choices politicians have to make in order to get that sliver of power they hope will let them undo some of the shit they have to do to get it. It also nicely explains how political cabinets in the States sometimes wind up with truly oddball members. I’m sure offering up game-winning votes is just one way, but it is demonstrative of a grievous lack of good faith inherent to this way of doing politics.

There’s also a sense that these are the real players in this strange political world. The campaign managers and workers and interns are the guys passing and shooting the ball that is their guy. Morris is remote and somewhat unfathomable, a figure and symbol more than a man which is how it is that his mistakes are so unexpected and so severe. In its portrayal of the way this game, an analogy that really works, is played, the film feels like a bit of a love letter to professional campaignspeople and the corruption they face on a daily basis. Meyers falls victim to it and there’s a sense he’ll go on to not caring who he has a hand in getting elected and whether they are right for the job, becoming just another version of Hoffman or Zara. If a guy like Morris, who in some ways I wish was a real candidate and not one they stitched together from real guys, can be so wrong on such a deep level in spite of all the rhetoric, then what hope is there?

And it is that which the film leaves us with. A deep and pounding sense of dissatisfaction for a political system that has room for this sort of shit, that may even encourage it. Anyone watching this should have the feeling that this is a system that just doesn’t work at all the way it should. There’s no real mystery in how the good guys go bad, or never get anywhere where they can truly work some good. It’s all for the mundane, sickening reasons that lie at the heart of the perennial question, “why do bad things happen to good people?”. Because of other people, and people being people. Pretty bleak, huh? I think if Ides of March had been made in 2007, it would have dared to be even bleaker. I’m sure some people are going to look at it and think “what’s this about, didn’t the good guy win in 2008?” Well sure, it seems as though he did. Then, if nothing else, Ides of March is about asking what that cost him, and the American people, and (it being America and all) the rest of us too.

The film’s marketing gives a nod to how Gosling and Clooney look a bit alike. Ides coasts on the themes implied by that first marketing image, leading us all the way to this one. A rebuttal of the fresh-faced good guy presented in Morris but backed by Meyers.