From the opening scene of his newest movie, Ryan Gosling makes one thing very clear: He’s come a long way since “The Notebook,” and there’s no turning back.

The up-and-comer heads an impressive cast in the highly anticipated political drama “The Ides of March,” which came out Friday. The film opens one week before the democratic primary election in Ohio, as presidential candidate Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney, “The American”) struggles to retain his diminishing lead. “As goes Ohio, so goes the nation,” reporters in the film announce, emphasizing that Morris must take the state in order to secure his bid for the presidency.

Gosling (“Drive”) plays the ambitious, upstanding Stephen Meyers, Morris’s press secretary for the presidential campaign. Alongside campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Moneyball”), Meyers attempts to persuade Morris to strike a deal with morally questionable North Carolina Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright, “Source Code”) for a seat in the cabinet in exchange for the backing of Thompson’s delegates, whose numbers will secure either candidate’s presidential bid.

The drama heightens when the opposition’s campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti, “The Hangover Part II”), reveals the opposition has acquired Thompson’s endorsement, essentially ending Morris’s presidential aspirations. Duffy offers Meyers the chance to begin working for the opposition before Morris is eliminated in the primary election on Tuesday. The ambitious Meyers recognizes his opportunity to secure a prestigious job in the White House, but believes in the purity of Morris’s personal and political values. Tensions rise as Meyers is forced to choose between loyalty and ambition. “Do you want to work for the friend,” Duffy asks Meyers, “or do you want to work for the president”?

Indeed, presidential candidate Morris is reminiscent of Obama’s campaign for change. Morris’s face is plastered on the same red, white and blue campaign posters; he promotes technological innovation and emphasizes reducing American dependency on foreign oil. Morris attempts to differentiate himself from his fellow politicians by refusing to climb a corrupt political ladder to the top; but in line with tradition, the audience quickly realizes that Morris is hiding secrets of his own that will challenge Meyers’ belief in Morris’ morals.

The setting of the film reflects the dark but honest tone of the plot. The style is overwhelmingly grey: The lighting is drab and the skies are consistently overcast. The streets and alleyways are dimly lit and lined with muddied slush. The government cars and the politicians’ business suits are dark, and Cincinnati is gloomy. The setting effectively keeps viewers in the dark about the film’s outcome; the complete absence of the sun dampens viewers’ hopes that Morris and Meyers will rise above the corruption and greed by which they are surrounded.

As for the acting, Clooney has a surprisingly small role considering his high level of involvement with the film as director and co-star. Although Clooney delivers his role with striking precision, the film makes no attempt to disguise the fact that it acts as a vessel for Clooney’s own outspoken leftist politics.

However, Clooney’s choice to explore a relatively small cast in great depth allows viewers to envision their own local politicians in each role portrayed in the film. The characters accurately represent the range of politicians along the sliding scale of morality and present with unabashed honesty the scandalous controversy buried deep in every high-stake political campaign in modern American politics.

Gosling delivers his role as a morally-conflicted political up-and-comer with a newfound sense of maturity that is impossible for the audience to ignore. Despite the fact that his brooding character smiles sparingly, Gosling nevertheless charms viewers by drawing them into his deeply troubled world. And although some parts of his character’s journey are predictable, Gosling’s ability to craft a character that is so realistically unpredictable during moments of emotional distress instills in viewers a newfound respect for Gosling that cements his place as an actor in the big leagues with Clooney.

A true political must-see, “The Ides of March” delivers on every level: The acting is superb, the plot strikes just the right balance of realistic political fraudulence and unyielding hope, and the content matter is increasingly relevant as we near an election year. Overall, the film is neither overly didactic nor too damning; rather, it presents an honest view of the corruption that plagues both political parties at every level of involvement.

4 stars out of 5