As a director, George Clooney has done a solid job of trying different genres, but the two themes he returns to each and every time are, invariably, the media and politics. The Ides of March focuses so intensely on these two subjects that you shouldn't need to see the director's credit to know it's his film.
Adapted from Beau Willimon's play Farragut North, the movie stars Ryan Gosling as Stephen Myers, a campaign press secretary for a governor (Clooney) who is in a tight race to become the Democratic presidential nominee. Stephen is the wunderkind on the campaign, earning the trust of his boss Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and commanding the respect of the staffers and volunteers. But Stephen is involved in this particular campaign because he's a true believer in what Governor Mike Morris stands for, and he knows in his heart he will be an excellent president. One day, Stephen gets a call from Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager for Morris' rival in the primaries, and Tom offers the young man a chance to jump ship; he explains how his candidate is going to run away with the victory and that for Stephen's own good he should join them. Just as Stephen gets this intriguing proposition, he learns from Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), a staffer he's been sleeping with, that Morris may have a skeleton in his closet that could torpedo not just the campaign, but his political career as well.
In a cast this impressive, it's a sign of his genuine star power that Ryan Gosling carries this movie. He's in just about every scene, and it's the crumbling of Stephen's innocence that provides the movie's backbone. He has a scene early on with a reporter, played by Marisa Tomei, where his idealism about Morris is laid bare, and the penultimate scene in the movie has the two meeting face to face again. These two scenes illustrate not only Stephen's journey, but how talented Gosling is -- how fully he can take his seemingly effortless charisma and curdle it into something dark and foreboding.
Even if you were unaware of the movie's source material, it's fairly obvious that The Ides of March is based on a stage play. The big moments are all thrilling monologues, and seemingly every member of this powerhouse cast gets one, with Paul Giamatti making the most-vivid impression when he explains to the naïve Stephen all the things his idealism didn't allow him to see. Clooney smartly adds some darkness to his own stereotypical screen persona -- he was savvy to cast himself in the part. And Hoffman has all the brusque, no-nonsense focus of a man who has spent his life getting other people to do what he wants them to.
For all the expert acting, though, there is a flaw in the narrative that's troublesome. Namely, Stephen seems to let go of his innocence a little too easily. When he finally sees the whole truth of the situation, when he understands how all the sides are playing the game, his cynicism arrives too quickly -- so much so that we don't have time to mourn the loss of the person he used to be. The film is admirably brief, but a few more scenes of Stephen wrestling with his conscience might have given it a more-satisfying dramatic payoff.
But that's not to say that The Ides of March fails as drama. The ending certainly packs a punch thanks to Gosling's immense skill, and the entire movie has been crafted by Clooney to showcase his actors. It's the work of a professional filmmaker who wants to give audiences a good time, but still wants to bring up a few unpleasant truths while he's at it.