Steve Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is a media consultant for the Democratic presidential primary campaign of an idealistic Pennsylvania senator named Mike Morris (George Clooney, who also directs). Clooney’s movie picks up the action in Ohio, a must-win state for the ambitious and apparently decent senator whose outspoken positions include ending all dependence on Middle East oil.
But campaign cracks begin to appear. Morris campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) can’t secure a key endorsement. Rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) tries secretly recruiting Steve away. Above all, there’s the intern factor, Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), the pretty, 20-year-old daughter of the Democratic National Committee chairman, whose indiscretions shake and snare two key players. Lasciviousness coaxes male rottenness the forefront and produces casualties.
On the face of it, all these fact-based ingredients and a strong cast would seem to make for a good political thriller that focuses on a good guy, Steve, going bad, soured and tainted by a stainless steel candidate, Mitch, who turns out to be anything but stainless.
Strangely, though, nothing much comes together in the way of drama. Old hands Hoffman and Giamatti are excellent as dueling aides. Mitch says all the right things as happily married liberal, and a hypocrite. Marisa Tomei is suitably carnivorous as Ida Horowicz, a New York Times political reporter.
The problems may lie with the drawing up of Steve himself, whose personality isn’t sufficiently fleshed out to make his fall from grace particularly engaging. When the crusty Zara tells him, “This is the big leagues. It’s mean,” zombie-like Steve hardly flinches. He instead soon turns into an amoral loose cannon as lethal as all the rest.
The blame lies with Clooney’s direction. He enters the movie jaded and cynical about liberal politics (Clinton-Lewinsky in mind) and encourages the laissez faire narrative to follow his lead, which it does blandly.