DirkH’s review published on Letterboxd:
The excellent cast and Clooney's solid direction compensate for this film's complete lack of characterization and weak plot.
With a title as clever as this one, you'd half expect the script to follow suit, but it unfortunately doesn't. Even though it manages to capture the Machiavellian nature of American politics rather accurately, it never does anything with it. It in stead opts for simplicity, sacrificing every chance to convey a compelling message about politics other than 'it's a dirty business'.
But I guess the biggest problem it has lies with the characters. Most characters are completely flat. This does not necessarily have to be a big problem, but when your protagonist is perhaps the flattest of them all, you're in trouble. Gosling's character does not have any background. He is just there, doing the things he does, landing in various predicaments that hold no real interest for us as viewers as we are not allowed to invest in him. Let me rephrase that, there is nothing there to invest in in the first place. His motivations and the choices he makes seem to appear out of thin air and remain baseless and therefore uninteresting.
The only level on which I really appreciate this film is that of the actors. There are scenes in this film that are simply phenomenal. In those scenes its flaws are quickly forgotten and the love for great acting takes over. Clooney is excellent as presidential candidate, Giamatto is solid, Hoffman is his usual divine self, but Gosling is the cherry on the cake. His performance is convincing and very strong, showing great restraint when up against more seasoned performers. There is a Clooney/Gosling showdown near the end that is just delicious to watch.
Another thing that helps this film is the way Clooney films it. It feels a bit glossy, yet sober a the same time. When the colours need to be bright they are at centre stage, at political rallies and what not. But in the back rooms, where the gears of the campaign engine are turning it comes across as somewhat bleak. This contrast works really well. Clooney has a no frills approach to filmmaking that I really love and his focus on the actors here is what saves the film for me.