Thursday, January 24, 2013

Knife Fight: Political Smugness Run Amok

There is no equivalent for political journalist turned Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Allen Drury in our current day and age.  This sad fact is brought home loud and clear in Bill Guttentag’s even sadder political wish fulfillment fantasy Knife Fight (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York at the IFC Center.

Paul Turner is a ruthless political consultant, but that is okay, because he only uses his powers for “good” rather than “evil.”  Giving an ostensibly warts-and-all tutorial to his new apprentice Kerstin, Turner explains, at their worst, his liberal clients are well-intentioned rogues, where as the other party is nothing but scum-sucking corporate tools.  The prime example is the Clintonesque Kentucky governor proposing to makes foreclosures a death-penalty crime.  Tired of bending but not breaking his ethical principles to save the philandering governor’s bacon, Turner recharges his idealism by taking on a long shot California gubernatorial candidate, who promises to save the state from bankruptcy with an unprecedented explosion of entitlement spending.

One of the most odious features of contemporary politics is the non-apology-apology and Turner has one of the worst examples ever.  He does not quite say “I’m sorry you attempted suicide because you couldn’t hack my relentless campaign of character assassination,” but its close.

Described in some places as a “political thriller,” Knife Fight is anything but.  Guttentag (with an assist from former Gore flack Chris Lehane) thoroughly stacks the deck in favor of Turner’s clients, while portraying him as unfailingly brilliant, so there is absolutely no suspense whether righteousness will prevail.  Even Turner’s big crisis of conscience amounts to little more than a supposed showcase for his superior sensitivity.

Just when Knife Fight reminds viewers how much we do not miss the cynical sanctimony and self-consciously rat-a-tat-tat dialogue of The West Wing, Richard Schiff appears as Dimitris, Turner’s Obiwan dirty trickster.  As Turner, Rob Lowe exudes interminable smugness.  Eric McCormack does the same as the governor, adding an impossibly bad southern accent.  Of course, nobody of note plays any of the conservative candidates, because they are seen exclusively in ridiculously over-the-top attack ads.  Only Jamie Chung comes across remotely likable as the young Jedi Kerstin, perhaps because she has little to do besides rolling her eyes at Turner’s unethical tactics.

If not the worst film of 2013 (time will tell), Knife Fight is the overwhelming frontrunner for the most simplistic.  Indeed, it is so stilted and self-congratulatory it would make even James Carville nauseous.  The combination of wafer-thin characterization and contrived plotting is not a winning one.  Only the most insecure and insular leftwing partisan could take solace from it.  Not recommended, not even for those who are down with it politically, chapter and verse, Knife Fight opens tomorrow (1/25) at the IFC Center.