Dir. George Clooney
For those fervent, politically minded fans who think George Clooney's liberal politics, sober intelligence and inhuman charisma would make him an ideal candidate to run for office, George has a message for you, written in bold, with a pen dipped in poison ink: No one is as good a human being as you want them to be, least of all your favored candidates. His new, timely film concerns a young media whiz on the cusp of bringing his presidential candidate into power, only to see the whole thing crumble to dust before coming back again.
The whiz in question is Stephen (Ryan Gosling), a hotshot young media specialist with a boundless future and one significant political weakness: A strong need to believe whole-heartedly in the candidate for whom he's working. In that regard, it would seem he has hit the jackpot. Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) appears to be a forthright and charismatic visionary for whom political office is a chance "to make a difference in people's lives." To Stephen's mind, he also displays integrity, unwilling to make a back door deal with an Ohio senator (Jeffrey Wright), in order to secure the senator's endorsement, even if doing so would practically sew up the democratic nomination. After Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager of Morris' primary opponent, sets up a meeting with Stephen in order to try and recruit him for his staff, Stephen rejects the offer out of hand, but still has to contend with the consequences brought to him by his cynical boss, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman). When, in the course of dealing with a young, pretty intern (Evan Rachel Wood), it becomes clear to Stephen that Morris might not be the man he thought he was, the course of the campaign takes a decidedly different -- and far more Machiavellian -- tone.
Clooney, who helped adapt the screenplay from Beau Willimon's play, Farragut North, knows how to mine the deceptive charm and slippery allure of these men, talented, well-spoken and ruthless as cobras. As a director, he also knows how to hold back, keeping clear of the kind of emotional histrionics in which more populist political thriller might indulge. No more so than a scene late in the film concerning a confrontation between Morris and his campaign manager inside the Governor's limo. Clooney's camera remains across the street, outside the car, leaving the moment up to our imaginations. It's a tricky business: to not take full advantage of this high-powered cast -- which includes excellent turns by Clooney, Gosling, Hoffman and Marisa Tomei, as a Times reporter -- feels a little bit like leasing a Maserati and then strictly adhering to the speed limit, but Clooney, an actor who has well learned the lesson of restraint, is after much more sobering impact. There's no "You can't handle the truth!" moments here, just the slow bleeding of a intelligent young man's political enthusiasm, and the turning out of another jaded soul.