First Night: The Ides Of March, Venice Film Festival

Good-guy George Clooney shows his corrupt side...
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The Independent Culture

There's a curiously old-fashioned air to George Clooney's latest feature, which opened the 68th Venice Film Festival yesterday.

Adapted from the play Farragut North, by Beau Willimon, the film harks back to the character-driven political thrillers that Michael Ritchie and Alan J Pakula used to make in the early 1970s during the Watergate era – films like The Candidate and The Parallax View.

Extremely well-crafted and acted, the film was warmly enough received at yesterday's screening. But it lacks that sense of political idealism and indignation that made Clooney's earlier directorial effort, Good Night, and Good Luck so stirring.

Clooney gives a dispiriting sense that US politics is such a venal and corrupt arena that no one can hold on to their integrity. The film begins with the campaign manager Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) testing the mics before a political debate featuring Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), a Democrat hopeful for the presidency. Meyers cynically races through Morris's speech. A few moments later, the same words are delivered by Morris himself. Clooney looks absolutely the part as a presidential hopeful, railing eloquently against religious bigotry and America's obsession with oil.

Early scenes, showing the hectic behind-the-scenes world of a Democratic campaign, rekindle memories of The War Room, the celebrated DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus documentary about Bill Clinton's campaign team. The strategists Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Meyers are every bit as colourful and as Machiavellian as real-life prototypes like Clinton's advisers James Carville and George Stephanopoulos.

However, as the film progresses, the storytelling changes tack. This turns into an embroiled drama about loyalty, blackmail and illicit sex with the intern (Evan Rachel Wood). The bigger picture – the brave new America that Meyers hopes his candidate Morris will deliver – becomes ever more clouded as the dirty tricks kick in. The plotting is complex. No one's behaviour is ever quite what it seems. When the campaign manager (Paul Giamatti) for a rival candidate makes friendly overtures toward Meyers, we very quickly realise that his intentions are not benign. What starts as a political drama moves into film noir territory. The look of the film darkens.

The screenplay, by Clooney and his regular collaborator, Grant Heslov, makes some trenchant points about the ambiguous relationship between politicians and the press – a relationship that oscillates between sycophancy and hostility. It is also funny and observant about the circus-like aspect of a US presidential campaign. This is a world in which even the idealistic candidate with the JFK smile turns out to be as tainted as anyone else.