THE IDES OF MARCH Pictured: optimism! Also pictured: INEVITABLE DISAPPOINTMENT.

THE CHANCE to see Ryan Gosling and George Clooney face off is reason enough to recommend The Ides of March, and toward the end of the movie, that's exactly what happens. That scene, set in the kitchen of a restaurant after hours, contains some of the most electrifying acting you'll see all year. In the dark, the two men confront one another—calmly and quietly, but with deadly seriousness. They're working out a deal, and it's the kind of backroom transaction that Clooney (Ides' director and co-screenwriter) suggests affects not just the insider world of Washington, DC, but the country as a whole. It's also a reminder that both Gosling and Clooney are stars of their magnitude not just because of their severe handsomeness—but also because they're both great actors.

Gosling plays Stephen Myers, a staffer working on the presidential campaign for Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (Clooney). With strategist Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) leading the campaign, they're gearing up for the Democratic primary in Ohio. At the start of Ides, Stephen's a young-buck idealist who's entirely enamored with Governor Morris, a character loosely based on pre-"yaaargh" Howard Dean—in other words, a liberal's wet dream. (Clooney is playing coyly not with just his own politics, but with people's perception of him as a possible future presidential candidate. Initially, Ides does nothing to dissuade this perception.) Paul Giamatti plays the head of the opposing campaign, and while he seems to be an unscrupulous trickster, Stephen soon discovers that there isn't really room for absolute idealism when a presidency is at stake. A seductive intern (Evan Rachel Wood) and a muckraking journalist (Marisa Tomei) further complicate things.

There's almost no bloat to The Ides of March—it's a lean, clean thriller that steadily ramps to a sharp climax. But Clooney feels like he's building up to something bigger here, so when the ending comes, it feels premature. The script has bigger implications than can fit in the movie, both politically and from a storytelling perspective; it's virtually bursting at the seams with strong characters whose relationships are continually shifting. (Hoffman has the trickiest role, and pulls it off nearly perfectly; Tomei and Giamatti's supporting characters are both fascinating and under used.) Still, if the worst thing I can say about a movie is that I wanted there to be more of it, that's a fine problem for it to have.