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The Ides of March

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“The Ides of March” reaffirms what I already believed, which is that I would rather set myself on fire than go into politics. The conniving, the backstabbing, the spinning, the lying, all while under the constant scrutiny of the media and the public — no thank you. But watching fictional people go through it in enthralling political dramas like this one is an intoxicating pleasure.

George Clooney returns to the director’s chair and to the behind-the-scenes public-policy intrigue of his “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Clooney’s passion for this kind of thing is evident; the film he made between that one and this one, the screwball comedy “Leatherheads,” was fun but hollow, and you can tell how energized he is to be working on something meaty again. This is no “All the President’s Men” — nor does it mean to be — but it’s an intelligent and of-the-moment look at the political process.

The subject this time is the Democratic primary campaign in an unspecified election year. (The movie is adapted from Beau Willimon’s play “Farragut North,” which was loosely based on Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential run.) Working on the campaign of one of the frontrunners is a staffer named Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), an idealistic young go-getter who truly believes in his candidate, Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney). With the important Ohio primary looming, Stephen and the jaded campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), oversee interns and volunteers while helping Gov. Morris shape his message. Among these interns is Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), a college student and the daughter of an important party leader.

Their opponent, a U.S. senator, is running neck-and-neck with Morris in the polls, and his campaign is managed by Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who’s easily as jaded and exhausted as his counterpart in the Morris camp. (Having the opposing campaign managers be played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, who complement one another as two sides of the same beleaguered coin, is a stroke of casting genius.) Tom makes overtures to Stephen, trying to lure him away from the Morris campaign, but Stephen is loyal. Meanwhile, both sides are trying to secure the endorsement of a senator (Jeffrey Wright) in the state where the next primary is to be held, and a news reporter (Marisa Tomei) is eager to sniff out scoops.

Once these pieces are in place, we’re treated to a twisty tale of political wonkery and human weakness in which Stephen is thrown head-first into the dirty business of office-seeking. Not for nothing does the title call to mind both Julius Caesar and Shakespeare: this is as much a dramatic tragedy as it is a political story. (The actual political positions of the characters hardly matter.) Stephen thinks he already knows how things work. “This is the big leagues,” he tells someone. “It’s mean. When you make a mistake, you lose the right to play.” But he doesn’t realize just how mean the game really is — if he did, he wouldn’t still be idealistic. Paul Zara and Tom Duffy, who’ve been through this before, they know.

With his stellar performance in “Drive” still fresh in our memories, Ryan Gosling continues to stake out his position as one of the most subtle, soulful, and interesting actors of his generation. He doesn’t do histrionics. On the rare occasion that he raises his voice slightly, it’s usually backed with such intensity that the effect is the same as if he’d screamed it. In “The Ides of March,” Gosling goes toe-to-toe with Giamatti, Hoffman, and Clooney — not a slouch among them, acting-wise — and each time, no matter what the configuration, the result is electric. Giamatti’s a shark, Hoffman’s a schemer, and Clooney puts a satisfying spin on the role of the liberal glad-hander. Any one of them could carry the film; it just happens to be Gosling’s job to do so.

It happens several times that this character or that is willing to sell someone out for his own gain one minute, indignant the next minute that he’s been sold out by someone else. The rules, such as they are in this muddy game, apply to everyone, but everyone seems to think they apply to everyone but him. That’s the tragedy of it — the inevitable but sad, exhilarating but devastating tragedy of it. Better it should happen to these fictional people than to me.

B+ (1 hr., 41 min.; R, pervasive harsh profanity, a little sexuality.)

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