With five nominations and two wins from the Academy Awards for documentary work, director Bill Guttentag set his sights on the world of political strategists with a potential for eye-opening revelations. Unfortunately it didn’t take long to realize acquiring usable, candid footage would be impossible when the presidential candidates he interviewed refused to be on the record. They weren’t going to allow their backhanded deals, amoral treachery, and back alley tactics see the light of day—especially not in their own words. No, for Knife Fight to bear fruit he’d need to change his process and build a fiction from the truths he learned. Teaming with Chris Lehane — former Special Assistant Counsel to Bill Clinton and Press Secretary to Al Gore — Guttentag would lift the curtain on his own terms.
Lehane admits in the press notes that while their script is a compressed greatest hits of chaos he was involved in during a twenty-year career, “there will be people [watching] this [who will] have some familiarity with various scenes.” I don’t know about you, but that sold me from the start. We can accept movies like Wag the Dog and Ides of March were crafted from this world, but they’re high drama telling a story instead of the slice of life expose many clamor to uncover. Both are admittedly better than Knife Fight as a result, making you contemplate the secrets lying beneath the surface of men and women we willingly give absolute power to every November. Sometimes, though, we just want the dirt unfiltered in all its despicable glory.
This is the reason why In the Loop is so fantastically hilarious and enjoyable as a farce on international politics. We know how silly it can be putting self-absorbed, power-hungry people in control of our freedoms and our future. We see the comical tragedy of the situation, play armchair Senator, and joke with tongue-in-cheek that we’re moving to Canada if so-and-so wins election because he’s a philanderer, she’s a drug addict, or he pushed his way up the ladder with bribes. Like Paul Turner (Rob Lowe) says, we do it because unparalleled genius comes with unparalleled errors in judgment. His laundry list of adulterers who gave our country peace and salvation makes you snicker because it’s real. Sometimes you have to forgive and ignore the personal indiscretions because the public service is exactly what we need.
Consider what Guttentag and Lehane have made to be a more serious—albeit still funny—Americanization of In the Loop. It’s not as crass or vulgar or satirical, but it looks to uncover that same sense of honest fallibility inherent in such a publically strenuous job. We’re given a Governor of the people looking to help low income families survive a terrible economy who in his wife’s words, “sleeps with anything in a skirt”; the pristine war hero whose opponents try and fail to dig up dirt on him who makes one mistake risking to destroy every inspired initiative he’s put forward; and the not a chance in hell idealist yearning to change the status quo who must embrace the need to sometimes bring that gun to the knife fight without remorse or guilt.
Politics are a winners’ game and if you aren’t willing to go all the way you shouldn’t have started. But while we know our fair share of Gov. Larry Beckers (Eric McCormack), Sen. Stephen Greens (David Harbour), and Dr. Penelope Nelsons (Carrie-Anne Moss), the real entertainment lies in the movers and shakers behind the scenes. This is where Turner and his assistant Kerstin (Jamie Chung) enter the fold. Attached to their phones and laptops as though wired into their veins, these heavyweights do nothing but wait for the next disaster to avert. With a crack private detective (Richard Schiff‘s Dimitris), efficient cameraman/video publicity editor (Davey Havok‘s Jimmy), back pocket television news personality (Julie Bowen‘s Peaches), and a strangely prevalent heart and soul despite cutthroat mentalities, they literally make kings and queens.
Clichéd and obvious as far as crises of faith and tough manipulations with dire consequences, Turner is a man admittedly playing a videogame with people’s lives he often forgets aren’t pawns to move without an avalanche of pain and suffering wrought upon them. But that doesn’t make it less authentic. We recognize Saffron Burrows‘ politician’s wife standing by her man despite no longer naive to his indiscretions. We know Brooke Newton‘s big bosomed masseuse trying to get fifteen minutes and two million. We relate to the likes of ex-professional athletes (Eddie George) and naïvely starstuck bystanders (Jennifer Morrison) playing their roles in a spinning of public perception by willfully entering the dangerous game for high reward. And just when you think morality may be the victor, power proves too tempting.
The acting in these broadly painted roles is superb from McCormack channeling Clinton to Harbour’s earnest yet tarnished nobility to the innocent bystanders left psychologically naked and alone like Amanda Crew‘s Helena. The filmmakers traverse the ebbs and flows of comical pain with devastating suffering well as their lead reconciles his faith in the fact his tactics ensure the country’s well being despite their manipulations. It’s all about believing in the candidate you’re backing and accepting there was no other way to win. Sometimes a stabbing can be laughed at because no one got hurt and sometimes you can pause the day-to-day to acknowledge when real, avoidable tragedy struck. And while Chung is our avatar learning the ropes and visiting the zoo, it’s surprisingly Lowe who steals the show with his imperfect ringleader.
Knife Fight wears its indie label on its sleeve with a who’s who of rising stars and television staples as well as its mainstream ability to turn depressing drama into an inevitable win. It does, however, come across with quick-witted dialogue and endearing characters. It’s a by-the-books production allowing for new blood to cut their teeth—hear Sister Bliss‘ score amidst tracks from her former band Faithless and one of the aforementioned Havok’s groups—while also giving Guttentag the opportunity to package his original intent inside a more palatable cinematic form. Most Americans would rather spend time laughing at familiar faces than listening to politicians inside a documentary. Combining both techniques is therefore a win for everyone and a fun look at the machinations of the political system.
Knife Fight opens in select cities on Friday, January 25th and hits VOD on January 28th.