A Dated, Simplified View of Political Corruption in 'Knife Fight'

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The independent movie plots the tangles of money, sex, and politics, but it seems geared toward an audience unfamiliar with the genre.

lowe.jpgDivisadero Pictures, Knife Fight

Before the opening music wraps on Knife Fight, we've been treated to a litany of clichés that suggests that this is a political movie made for people who have never seen one. Rob Lowe is political consultant Paul Turner, in a film recently screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, co-written and produced by long-time Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, and currently looking for distribution. There's a Friday night document dump, the notion that if one is explaining one is losing, and the suggestion that money is, indeed, the mother's milk of politics. Then things settle on our premise, another well-worn trope: that the best politicians are likely to sleep around. As Turner puts it, "You don't get the outsized talent without the outsized weakness." Eric McCormack is the drawling, darling governor of Kentucky and theater actor David Harbour is an Afghanistan War hero turned senator from California. Both are concerned, right-minded politicians who are flawless but for one flaw: the occasional extramarital sexual dalliance. (The sex really is meant to be toss-aside. It's not even clear whether Harbour's character is conscious at the time of his encounter with the inevitable masseuse.)

The job of Turner and his allies, including Lowe's The West Wing co-star Richard Schiff, is to keep these cads in office. The operatives work their magic through heartstring-tugging ads crafted by a tattooed video virtuoso, romancing the press, and, when things really count, acts of all-out fraud. Directed by Bill Guttentag, the film is enjoyably fast-paced and even fun in spots, and Lowe and the rest of the cast give it their all. But Knife Fight reduces itself to a simple calculation. You're a political consultant. Is it more honorable for you to help elect and protect smart, committed, and generally decent men with zipper problems -- or to let power go instead to dumb politicians with little more to offer the country than good hair?

That Knife Fight focuses on Turner and his consultant crew raises hopes that we're in for a meaningful dissection of ground-level politics. Never mind Mitt Romney's recent tetchy quip that "I think you can expect advisers to think that the work of advisers is very, very important." Talking about staffers is a good thing. The candidate gets his or her name on the posters, but by now we're savvy enough to know that every campaign, and nearly every act of governing, is a product of human collaboration. Advisors and aides are the meat of it. We eat up stories about the high-achieving "body man" who is willing to hold Mitt Romney's chair. Released Larry Summers's memos on the scope of the economic crisis aren't really about dissent, but about legitimate policy processes at a critical moment in history. We can appreciate that Barack Obama isn't a lone genius or madman sitting in his study and single-handedly whipping up economic policy on behalf of the country. Even the entertaining HBO film Game Change was about the tricky balancing tests that McCain '08 staffers ran in plucking Sarah Palin from obscurity, and then steering her vice presidential campaign with mixture of bravado and grave doubts.

But, without giving away any spoilers, on the big questions Knife Fight lets its staffers get away with the easiest of answers.

It hardly seems necessary. Even far more pedestrian staff-level decisions than the veep pick can make good movie fodder. Take the brilliant 2009 film In the Loop. James Gandolfini is a standout as a peace-minded lieutenant general and Pentagon liaison to the U.S. State Department. But the ensemble cast is full of colorful mid-level personalities who, through the ill-phrased report and unsure contribution to a droning diplomatic meeting, seem destined to bumble the entire U.S.-Britain alliance into war in Iraq. In the recent film The Ides of March, George Clooney is a candidate on his way to the presidency, and his brilliant but tortured star aide Ryan Gosling must navigate a world of shifting loyalties. Ides is a far from perfect film. Calling it implausible would be charitable. But none of the characters are caricatures. Or, on the TV front, there's even Scandal. The new ABC drama starring Kerry Washington as a former White House communications director is deliciously fun while occasionally ridiculous; the crew of Washington fixers call themselves "gladiators in suits." But at least there the sex is out of passion, often generated by the heat of fighting for the same political goals. Not just that some politician falls asleep on a massage table.

Knife Fight is about a simple world where the good guys wear sparkling white hats but sometimes take their pants off when they shouldn't. In real life, the vibe of the moment is, instead, that politics is a complex system that has a way of turning good intentions into bad results. That's plenty interesting. It's "hope and change" translated to the day-in-and-day-out of governing. It's some of what's driving the leading Republican charge against Barack Obama heading into November, articulated by Romney surrogate Ed Gillespie as "a pretty broad view that President Obama is a good family man and decent guy, but may be in over his head." It's also what Harvard's Larry Lessig talks about in his book Republic Lost as a corruption that's not quid pro quo but one of decent people "working with a system that has evolved the most elaborate and costly bending of democratic government in our history." With Obama and Romney, both parties' nominees look to be models of sexual propriety. It's a spot of bad timing for Lehane. And yet, our politics still manage to be complicated, fascinating, and troubled. The two might have come from the same impulse, but Bill Clinton's willingness to triangulate against both parties' principles was more interesting than his actual doings with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton was flawed in ways that his libido reflected, but things didn't end there.

In short, it seems like we've moved on from Knife Fight. Lehane made his reputation working in the Clinton campaign and scandal-plagued Clinton White House of the 1990s. You don't need a psychology degree to see Lehane's script as an attempt to understand his knife-twisting approach to politics in the best possible light. There's a certain datedness that pervades the film. Appreciating that doesn't take much more than a scene where The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz, playing an online writer on the edge of a scoop, pronounces himself ready to have a "bloggasm." (You've been warned.) The fact that male politicians will screw around is a tale as old as time. That's not likely to change soon. But there are other ways to explore the tough choices that everyone involved in politics has to make. How about a movie on the daily impact of political money on governing, for example?

That's a less sexy story than the one Knife Fight takes on. But it'd also be more fun to see Rob Lowe try to pull off.

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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