Well-Intentioned Knife Brandishes a Dull Blade
If good intentions were all it took to make a great movie, than the political satire Knife Fight would be an early frontrunner to be easily hailed as one of 2013’s best motion pictures. An obvious labor of love for Academy Award-winning co-writer/director Bill Guttentag (he’s helmed two Documentary shorts that have garnered Oscars) and fellow writer Chris Lehane (a political consultant and former Special Assistant Counsel to President Bill Clinton), the movie wants to be an eviscerating expose of political campaigns and what it takes to run them. It attempts to shed light on a flawed, some would say broken system, asking tough moral questions while at the same time attempting to leave it up to the audience to decide for themselves what the answers are.
Problem is, movies as old as The Best Man and The Candidate, as relatively recent as Bulworth and Primary Colors, and as immediate as Recount and Game Change, have already beaten them to the punch, asking tougher questions and going into far darker recesses than this movie even remotely has the guts to. While on the surface much of what Guttentag and Lehane are saying is valuable, once you did into the dirt one quickly discovers there’s not a lot of substance to the conversation, the final film oddly cold and inefficient leaving me decidedly underwhelmed.
The plot follows Paul Turner (Rob Lowe), a savvy political consultant currently flexing his considerable behind-the-scenes muscles for a California State Senator (David Harbour) and the Governor of Kentucky (Eric McCormack), both of whom are in the middle of relatively tough re-election campaigns suddenly struck with scandal. He’s also being urged by his smart, energetic assistant Kerstin (Jamie Chung) to help out with inner-city doctor and fledgling gubernatorial candidate Penelope’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) run for office even though she’s got no shot of winning.
Guttentag and Lehane’s script follows each of these interconnected storylines just about equally, Paul’s schooling of Kerstin in the ways of political gamesmanship the through-line holding it all together. The central question? Does one’s belief in a politician’s ability to enact real, vital change in a broken system make up for their personal failings and, if does, then is it okay to find ways to dupe the public into voting for them even though they don’t really know the complete and total truth?
It’s a complex issue, and considering Lehane’s connections to former President Clinton not exactly a surprising one. But the movie, for all its merits, for all the moments that cut to the quick and go for the jugular, never goes far enough, doesn’t seem to have the strength of its own modest convictions to take this scenario and follow it all the way home. Instead, the movie ends with a rather maudlin, humdrum conclusion that feels more than a bit half-baked. The knife of the title isn’t driven home, and if any blood is in fact spilled the few drops hitting the celluloid are barely visible.
Not that the movie doesn’t provoke or stimulate. Some of the conversations between Paul and Kerstin achieve a knowingly acerbic authenticity as they regard the campaign process, while any time Richard Schiff shows up as a shifty, not even slightly above board manipulator is worthy of celebration. Additionally, McCormack is without a doubt having a blast playing the sexually promiscuous Kentucky Governor (a character without questions inspired by Lehane’s former boss), many of his scenes having a poignantly delicious zing to them speaking to exactly the multifaceted personal, moral and political quagmire so obviously wish to explore in minute detail.
But that sadly never happens, and every time I thought Guttentag and Lehane was going to go in for the kill and really take charge of its scenario and premise the film frustratingly took four or five gigantic steps backwards. Additionally, stories involving Moss and Harbour never get anywhere close to as interesting as they desperately needed to, while a subplot involving Paul and a driven California television journalist (deftly played by “Modern Family” star Julie Bowen) annoyingly fizzles out just as it begins to get interesting. But the same could be said for the movie as a whole, and for all its good intentions Knife Fight is as dull as a rusty butter knife and sadly just as useful, too.
Film Rating: 2 (out of 4)