We're in the midst of the Iowa caucuses, where Stephen Bellamy (John Gallagher, Jr.), the 25-year-old whiz-kid press secretary for evident front-runner Governor Morris, sees himself as riding high and certainly standing in firm stead with campaign manager Paul Zara (Chris Noth). Confident in his skills after an attention-getting five-year rise to his current position, Stephen has seemingly made no mistakes -- until he accepts a meeting with Tom Duffy (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), the campaign manager for Morris' leading opponent.
Stephen's last-second decision to not inform Paul beforehand about the appointment is the beginning of a downfall with tidal-wave ramifications for them both. It also affects shrewd New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Kate Blumberg), wet-behind-the-ears but primed-for-primetime deputy press secretary Ben (Dan Bittner), and 19-year-old intern-on-the-make Molly (Olivia Thirlby). Before you can say "Sarah Palin," the gaggle of calculating combatants is caught in a vortex of downwardly-spiraling double-crosses. Indeed, if there's any flaw in Willimon's calculated composition, it's the length of the coda scene where there's one last, particularly nasty twist.
Still, one of the bitter joys of getting to the end of the two-act piece is the abundance of withering remarks Willimon has the participants fire off. "There's nothing more valuable in this business -- the ability to win people's respect by making them mistake fear for love," Duffy tells Stephen. "Is that what you thought -- that we were friends?" Ida lobs at Stephen when she's about to run with a story that will put him in harm's way. Luckily, these lines and more get delivered with punch by a cast hustling on David Korins' all-purpose set -- with Paul Gallo's flashing lights, Joshua White's agitated projections, and David Van Tieghem's nerve-rattling music acting like cattle prods.
Gallagher, wearing the sharp suits Catherine Zuber has picked out, never compromises Stephen's blind ambition. He's like an animal pent in a cage. Noth is at his best delivering a crucial speech about loyalty, and the beautiful Thirlby as a young woman who has long since lost her virginity but not yet her moral compass shines like a multi-faceted diamond.
If you can't get a ticket, you can always wait for the movie (to be produced by George Clooney and starring Leonardo DiCaprio), but plays this good don't come along every day.
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