THE IDES OF MARCH  is one smart,  streamlined, and brutally transparent political thriller that doesn’t so much tell us what we didn’t already know, but rather gobsmacks us again with one of the oldest stories in the world. As the unsuspecting Julius Caesar discovered in 44BC, there’s a fine line between enemies and friends, ambition and loyalty, blood and glory. In 2011, the story is even more layered–power still corrupts, but perception is also power; media spinmeisters pull the strings, and politicians risk entanglement in the very webs they collaborate in weaving.

George Clooney–who co-wrote, directs, and stars as the handsome, liberal, honest family man and Governor Mike Morris of Pennsylvania running for the democratic nomination in a tight  presidential primary– doesn’t even appear on screen for the first 20 minutes. No–the first person we see in the film’s ingenious opening scene is the remarkably malleable actor Ryan Gosling, this time sleek in a suit and tie, mouthing the words of the candidate. It’s clear he doesn’t mean what he’s saying, and fools with the language. We understand how easily the phrases can be twisted, manipulated.  He’s clearly standing in for the candidate– and how. He’s Steve Myers, the media mind behind the campaign, and the two men are intertwined from the getgo.  It’s not that Steve puts words in the candidate’s mouth so much as spins the message to land the candidate where he wants to go. Perception is the fulrcrum on which this plot turns– and plays havoc with everyone’s moral compass.

Steve also stands in for us, with a front row seat to one of the greatest shows on earth.  We like Steve. For all his surface cool, he’s young (but at age 30, not too) and eager, and believes in his candidate; he’s “drunk the Kool Aid” smirks jaded NY TIMES reporter Ida  (played by the always superb Marisa Tomei) with whom he is always sparring. He has great respect for his boss, seasoned campaign curmudgeon Paul Zara played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Paul Giamatti deftly plays a rival campaign manager, while the mature beyond her years Evan Rachel Wood is perfect as an ambitious young intern. By the end of the film, all of these relationships will be turned upside down, tested to the breaking point, and hung out to dry.  All of these characters will be revealed as more dangerous and complicated than we or even they knew; politics is a sophisticated game that brings out the primitive in its players;  strength of character will get you so far–just maybe not in politics.

Clooney’s script makes almost every twist and turn crystal clear. The film is shot largely in closeup and shadow. We practically hear these characters thinking, weighing their options; we understand so clearly how and why they make the choices they make, that it’s hard not to sympathize with all of them.  We understand the various frailities the flesh is heir to, the insidious way power seduces the best intentioned.  The film asks all the fundamental questions about the ends justifying the means, the relationship between personal character and political efficacy. We find ourselves asking what we would do in the hothouse of political jockeying.  Between a rock and a hard place is where most politicians find themselves– and the script turns up many a rock–but it refrains from casting the first stone.

Oddly, the ending turns a bit clumsy as it scrambles to cram in too much plot in too short a period of time– some of it off camera–in order to bring all the chickens home to roost. It was work to make sense of the chronology of the unfolding events. In fact, the film could have been longer and taken its time.  But THE IDES OF MARCH gets there, and the final scene is as unnerving as the first.