Had it been released at a more halcyon time, The Ides of March would likely be dismissed as a self-indulgent political drama. As a cynical movie for an increasingly cynical age, however, its frank look at American politics, especially the double-dealing and backstabbing employed to win an election, couldn’t come at a better time.

The title of Beau Willimon’s play upon which the movie is based is Farragut North, a reference to the Washington, D.C. train depot around which a gaggle of political consulting firms are centered — a place where the careers of ex-campaign managers go to die. The title change was a shrewd move on the screenwriters’ part; it refers not only to the day that Julius Caesar (the pin-up boy for lofty political aspirations) was assassinated, but also to the day of an Ohio Democratic primary which has become a crucial run-off between presidential candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney, who also co-wrote and directed) and his opponent.

Morris needs to narrow the gap between himself and his opponent; working toward this are his campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his chief strategist, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the latter of whom is a young up-and-comer whose are sought after by the opposition’s campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). The outcome of the nomination race pivot on the endorsement of a senator (Jeffrey Wright) with a large number of pledged delegates, who in turn expects a cushy cabinet position in exchange.

Morris is a classic Hollywood dream candidate running on a promise of reinventing the nation, and, naturally, he’s too good to be true — enough to shake Stephen’s fervent idealism.

Clooney does an excellent job of giving us a believable peek behind the curtains of a presidential campaign, with scenes that could easily have been cribbed from The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker’s revealing documentary of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. We’re left with the unshakable feeling that dirty tricks aren’t just par for the course, they’re a matter of survival in a dog-eat-dog charnel pit. Clooney’s smart enough not to cram the message down viewers’ throats, but to let events play out to their inevitable conclusions on their own in front of us.

Though Clooney’s politics are decidedly liberal and his character is a left-of-center Democrat, Ides’s overall stance is more neutral, taking the position both sides are guilty of playing dirty pool when it suits them. At one point, Duffy rips into Meyers’ wide-eyed optimism by encouraging him to “get down in the mud with the [expletive] elephants.”

It also somehow manages to hold together during the final act, when gears slightly from morality tale to noir-ish drama. By that point we’re beyond hooked, thanks to the talented performances involved. Giamatti gives one of best recent performances as someone’s whose stayed in the fight too long, and does Marisa Tomei as a reporter who illustrates the contentious love-hate relationship between the press and politicians. Especially effective is Gosling as Meyers, whose descent from idealism to moral compromise ends with a chilling close-up of a face as stone cold as the one he wore throughout Drive.

Showing this weekend at NorthPark.