Breaking news, everyone. Politics kills ideals fast. Oh, you knew that already? So did I. In a scene at the beginning of the film, Maurisa Tomei's plays Soothsayer (her character's name is Ida) and makes the point that no successful candidate is clean. Gosling's protagonist doesn't believe her. He is still infatuated with Clooney and what it will mean when he's in the White House. Predictably, Ida is right, and the film tracks the history of Gosling's fall from innocence.
However, that history is pretty unpredictable, almost to a fault. The power plays and double crosses become so extreme that it's hard to work out how we got from point a to point b. But Gosling, and Clooney's direction, save the day. From the very first shot, there is something uncanny and unsettling about Stephen. The steely focus, the not-quite-there look in his eyes, hint at a ruthlessness that explodes into action midway through the film. Clooney also plays smooth with increasing flashes of callousness. By the end, both are thoroughly disagreeable and really quite scary. It's left to Paul Giamatti's shadowy cackling demon to spell out exactly what addiction to politics does to the soul.
Clooney direction is economical but assured, aimed squarely at capturing the mercurial nature of the characters. Several key turning points in the film occur off camera, being reported second hand and after the fact. Characters keep having their questions thrown back at them, even in the most personal of conversations ("How old are you?" "How old do you think I am?") Philip Seymour Hoffman is thrown out of the car because you don't win by relying on trust and loyalty (indeed, the film makes you wonder how he got that far). Again, Paul Giamatti is there to explain: politics is about having that undefinable poise that makes even your enemies love you. Machiavelli was right: virtù is not about being virtuous.
One of the final shots tracks a new intern as she delivers coffee to the staff. Her conversation with Max Minghella is wonderfully ambiguous, recalling the first exchange between Stephen and Molly. Will the new recruit be killed by sleaze and blackmail, or is there a chance that Ben will be different? We don't know, just like we don't know what kind of people our politicians really are. This is a much bleaker film than the feel good supercool Good Night, And Good Luck, and it's much better for it.