Stephen (Ryan Gosling) is a hot-shot; he can sweep a room like a man twice his age. He is second-in-command for the Presidential campaign of Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney). Morris is momentarily leading Senator Pullman in the Ohio primary - which would mean nothing for most people - but for politicians as Ohio goes so goes the country. The Republicans have no one that poses a serious threat; the driver's seat is his.
Steven isn't an idealist, he knows he has a winner in Morris, he just has to convince everyone else he is right. Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) is just as positive that he's right. Sure Morris is a good candidate, but the GOP is afraid of him. They will cross lines and vote against him in the primary to make sure he doesn't advance. Steven has a choice: face going back to a consulting firm, or jump ship and work for a president.
There is a particular scene during the film where Morris is reminding a crowd why he should be the man in charge of the country with a gigantic flag in the background. Behind him is his senior adviser Paul (a quietly stunning Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Steven. Politics is all about what is going on behind the curtain. The rhetoric gets you elected, but the unseen cogs are the ones actually running the world. In a world like that it is nearly impossible to remain ethically clean. Kool-aid is dangerous. Once you drink it you lose touch with reality. The hype becomes you and then everything you do is handled on a sliding scale of morality.
What gives me pause about Ides is that we already know all of this. In the heyday of the political films revealing crooks and the corrupted for who they really were, people were surprised. That is not the case today. Though several scenes with the characters drenched in shadow is a subtle, yet appreciated nod to films like All the President's Men.
Steven's price to pay in the film seems excessive considering the innocence of his mistake. Far more devious performers are all around him, but they are practiced in deceit. Steven may not be idealistic, but he is certainly naive.
What does elevate Ides above other films of its genre is how dark it is willing to go. What we found out about our main players is far worse than your regular scandal. Morris's demeanor while with his wife is sickeningly contrasted with a facade during a speech at the funeral of a campaign staffer.
Gosling turns in another excellent portrayal this year. I don't know if he can sneak into a very crowded lead actor field, but with the exception of Levitt in 50/50, few performances are as affecting as his. Watching a man go from unparalleled highs to a spectacular fall with only his eyes to betray him. A slow fuse waiting to explode.