FILM REVIEW: Knife Fight
As the glow from the Presidential inauguration fades, into theatres comes Knife Fight, the latest in string of political dramas focusing on the art of the spin. (Among them the filthy/fantastic In the Loop or the upcoming House of Cards.) Compared to its brethren, Knife Fight plays out as a cynical version of The West Wing, thanks to the inclusion of familiar faces Rob Lowe and Richard Schiff.
While Schiff gets a minor role as a mysterious investigator, Lowe's the brightest star in this small-budget production. He's Paul Turner, a strategist molded in the image of James Carville with more hair and less personality. When we meet him, Turner has his hands full jetting back and forth between multiple campaigns. There's an idealistic Kentucky governor (Eric McCormack) aiming for re-election and well as a heroic war vet (David Harbour) making a run for the Senate. But when a couple of sexual speed bumps threaten to derail both races Turner's damage control operation goes into overdrive.
Rob Lowe as the political strategist in Knife Fight. (Pacific Northwest Pictures)
News junkies looking for view behind the curtain might appreciate the fact that former Democrat "Master of Disaster" Chris Lehane co-wrote the screenplay with former documentarian Bill Guttentag. As someone who's worked with both Al Gore and Bill Clinton, Lehane has seen the way political fortunes change in the time it takes to click "Send." Lowe does his best getting his chops around Turner's detail-heavy dialogue, spitting out numbers of ad buys and polling trends while iPads showing the latest 30-second spot are passed back and forth like playing cards. It all feels very current and a little forced, like Lehane's eagerness to show what politics is really like got the better of Guttentag's story-telling.
While Knife Fight hits the right data points, the story is a poorly-structured muddle. Much like Not Fade Away, the movie from Sopranos creator David Chase, Knife Fight overreaches, stuffing an entire television season's worth of twists into 98 minutes. There's Kerstin, the ambitious gay assistant dealing with her parent's disappointment. Or Peaches, an anchor for a "fair-and-balanced" news channel who threatens to spill the goods on the horny war hero. Finally, presumably to underline there's some good in the world, Carrie-Anne Moss appears as Penelope, the idealistic inner-city doctor looking to make a real difference with her dot.com-funded campaign.
Carrie-Anne Moss plays the too-good-to-be true inner city doctor. (Pacific Northwest Pictures)
Much has been made in the promotional material of the real-life inspirations of the movie. As Lehane blusters, "This is how politics is played, a knife fight in a telephone booth." While Knife Fight gives us a sense of the close quarters combat, it's Turner's emotional inconsistency that hurts the movie the most. Flipping from ambitious, to remorseful and then to eager again, Knife Fight wants a heroe's redemption without any evidence of change. (Sorry, dunking your Blackberry doesn't count.) Television-quality production values and risible screenwriting ("I had a blogasm" quips Howard Kurtz in a cameo) don't help much either. Lots of sharp edges, but a dull script, make for a knife fight where no one wins.
(Opens Jan 25th in Toronto, other Canadian cities to follow.)
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