SCREENINGS & MEANINGS
By Gerald Schmitz
Election follies in the ‘excited’ States of America
Today is Halloween and what an onslaught of political tricks and treats there has already been in America’s multi-billion dollar 57th presidential campaign with less than a week to go. With the 24/7 spin cycle in overdrive could there be any skeletons left in closets to haunt the hustings? What kind of man or woman would want to be subjected to this electoral circus and what does that say about the world’s richest democracy and the people it chooses to lead?
In the meantime I’m still impatiently awaiting a
theatrical release for Knife Fight, a terrific film that premiered during
the Tribeca festival in April. Cutting close to the bone in any political
season, it seems especially timely now. But first I want to issue a warning
about how not to show up the political process.
I refer in particular to The Campaign, a dreadfully lame
and inane lampoon of American politics dumped in theatres during the
August doldrums and still running having grossed almost $90 million.
Gross indeed. An Indiewire review by Gabe Toro giving it a score of zero
on metacritic.com called it “laughless,” “cowardly” and “insidiously
In the ensuing contest no attack tactic is too low, duplicity
reigns, voters are treated as dupes and imbeciles to be manipulated by
senseless slogans (Brady’s is “Family, Jesus, Freedom”). Throw
in anti-Chinese xenophobia to the mix of trash-talk absurdity. It’s
all a tawdry charade with the bogeyman tycoons supposedly exposed in
the end. There are elements of legitimate satire that could have been
pulled from the worst excesses of an American political system which
many doubt is working to serve them. Unfortunately The Campaign blows
it by being mainly an excuse for gutter-level gags, hyper-sexual innuendo
and foul behaviours. Groan. Crude and lewd, it just leaves a bad taste.
In contrast to that outrageous descent, Knife Fight strives
to achieve veracity in its sharply drawn depiction of the sophisticated
political operations and stratagems that lie behind public officials’ campaigns
and careers. Director Bill Guttentag originally had planned a documentary
but decided he would never get sufficient access to be “inside
the room” where the key decisions get made. Instead he teamed up
with consultant Chris Lehane, a counsel to former president Clinton and
press secretary to former vice-president Gore during his presidential
run, who became a co-writer and co-producer on the film. Lehane had once
compared the last weeks of such campaigns to a “knife fight in
a telephone booth.” Hence the title.
At the centre of the action is high-powered political operator
for hire Paul Turner (Rob Lowe), a true believer in what he does who,
as he bluntly puts it, is “in the business of helping people who can win.” And
sometimes, “to win in politics you have to be the person who brings
a gun to a knife fight.” From his San Francisco base, Paul is also
in the business of making sure that his clients hold on to office and
their reputations by managing the inevitable crises of public life and
the fishbowl scrutiny of a scandal-hungry media. Himself a media hound
and master of spin as well as Blackberry addict, Paul is in bed, figuratively
and literally, with an ambitious local news anchor, Peaches O’Dell
(Julie Bowen). Both are skilled in the arts of using others for their
In this non-stop operation the politicians he represents
have human drives and weaknesses like the rest of us, perhaps a little
more so. Among his clients is a Kentucky governor, Larry Lincoln Becker
(Eric McCormack), who is accused of having sex with a young aide. Another
is a California senator and former war hero, Stephen (David Harbour),
who is being blackmailed by a seductress masseuse. Sticky moral issues
arise in determining how to contain the damage or shift the story and
go on the offensive. In the case of Governor Becker, Paul’s advice to destroy the credibility
of the young woman in question is challenged by Becker’s wife who
can live with his peccadillos but won’t be party to protecting
him by dragging an innocent person through the mud.
While Paul thinks of himself as a good guy, he doesn’t have many
scruples about taking the low road if necessary. He’s supported
by a crack trio of assistants: Kerstin (Jamie Chung), a young idealistic
lesbian; Jimmy (David Havok), a communications specialist who’s
an ace producer of campaign commercials; and not least Dimitris (Richard
Schiff), an old-hand “researcher” whose specialty is digging
up quality dirt on the opposition. They operate on the WWMD (What would
Machiavelli do?) principle.
Then along comes an unconventional candidate from outside
the political game. Penelope (Carrie-Anne Moss) is a doctor and single
mother who runs a free clinic in the Bay area and is passionate about
serving people. Persuaded that she can do more good by seeking public
office, she enters the race to be California’s next governor. After
initially dismissing that as a quixotic no-hope quest, Paul is won over
by her charisma and genuine sense of purpose which seems to rekindle
his own. He and his team throw themselves into a populist effort to get
her elected that would gladden the heart of any Hollywood liberal Democrat.
Of course, they still play to win even if that means resorting to less
than honest tactics of which the candidate may be unaware.
Knife Fight benefits from an able ensemble cast and well-drawn scenarios
that crackle with sharp dialogue. Rob Lowe as Paul gives a fine performance
that recalls his role as a California senator who runs for governor on
the television series Brothers and Sisters.
That said, not everything works. The first part encourages
a too cynical interpretation. With operators like Paul pulling strings,
how can we believe or trust any politician no matter how noble the end
that justifies the means? The second part of the movie focused on Penelope’s campaign
expects us to suspend our disbelief and accept a conclusion that is too
good to be true. It won’t wash (which may be why Indiewire’s
Gabe Toro attacked the result almost as much as the execrable The Campaign).
I happened to be near ultra-political filmmaker Michael Moore in the Tribeca press screening and afterward he told me he would have changed a pivotal plot device to make the ending more credible. After all, even nice girls get hurt when their backers play with knives.
Schmitz is an ambassador member of the Canadian Film Institute. He writes from Ottawa.