As a bare-knuckle assault on the corruption that has come to define the creeping rot of American politics, Knife Fight is neither as satirical as Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog nor as incisive and wrenching as George Clooney’s The Ides of March, but it’s a noble, shocking and inspired film worthy of attention.
Written and directed by Bill Guttentag (best known for documentaries) with an assist from co-writer Chris Lehane (a veteran political consultant to Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, so he knows the territory), the title of Knife Fight comes from the saying “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.” It’s a motto to live by in general, but especially in politics, which is depicted here as the ugliest, cruelest and most immoral blood sport on the planet. It’s a figure of speech with special meaning for high-priced spin doctors like Paul Turner (Rob Lowe), a go-to guide for politicians in trouble who will stop at nothing to perform triage on bleeding clients in the political ring. Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, says Paul, but the only way to win is to bring a gun to a knife fight. Right now, he’s got two clients who have waded into a stream full of crocodiles—Kentucky Governor Larry Becker (Eric McCormack, who has come a long way, baby, since Will & Grace) and California Senator Stephen Green (David Harbour), both in the midst of heated re-election campaigns. There’s also a potential third client—an honest, idealistic, fund-raising doctor (Carrie-Anne Moss) who runs a free clinic on pathetically inadequate state funds and really believes she can improve society and help the underprivileged by running for governor of California, but needs a power broker like Paul to help her. Sounds like a good cause, but who has time and money to invent a new political star who is—God forbid—an honest humanitarian? He blows her off.
Paul has his hands full trying to clean up messes for his top clients. Running against a popular baseball player, Gov. Becker appeals to his redneck constituents by attacking Wall Street and the banking industry, promising new laws to protect hardworking Kentuckians from future mortgage foreclosures, and then, coached by Paul, plays on their sympathy by dragging out exaggerated tales of his impoverished youth, living with his struggling mother and sister in a one-room apartment. While the Kentucky governor is in the middle of destroying his opponent’s reputation by exposing his confidential medical records, the California senator, a Purple Heart war hero with a bad back, makes the mistake of seducing a sexy massage therapist in the middle of a rubdown, who then blackmails him for $2 million. Paul’s idea of damage control, as he digs up two previous dismissed charges of prostitution against the masseuse: “You, sir, are a war hero who served your country in the freezing mountains of Afghanistan while she was selling her pussy at the Beverly Hills Hotel. It’s your word against hers, so you should be okay.”
While he’s scraping his knees crawling for help, leaving no stone unturned in his efforts to keep the senator’s name out of the paper, Paul sleeps with a leading San Francisco reporter, blackmails the owner of a TV station and tells a blizzard of lies about everything from family values to the importance of bloggers, soccer moms and the gay vote to distract the press from the fact that a politician can be devoted to changing the world and self-destruct at the same time. Then, just when the clean-cut senator regains his strength in the polls, the handsome governor is caught sleeping with one of his interns and even his wife (Saffron Burrows) turns against him. The political strategist’s solution: destroy the intern! And don’t think they don’t find a way to work in the Clinton-Lewinsky files in the bargain.
In his most fully realized role in years, Rob Lowe gives a smashing performance as he knocks himself out, living on planes and wiping the sweat off his forehead while hopping from one exasperating client to the next, his brain working overtime like Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success. In my opinion, the film saddles him with too many conflicting agendas, and it takes too long to address them all. With so many characters and so many issues, Knife Fight seems overlong, but it’s still above and beyond most movies that try to puncture the balloons of political hypocrisy. The writing is sometimes awkward, but the actors are uniformly convincing. Eric McCormack’s triumphant Broadway turn as the sleazy presidential candidate in the recent revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man seems, in retrospect, the perfect audition for his role as the duplicitous Kentucky governor in Knife Fight. Like Ryan Gosling in The Ides of March, Jamie Chung is excellent as the idealistic assistant who gets a crash course in dirty politics just by watching her boss in action. In a rare moment of remorse, Mr. Lowe’s Paul justifies the ruthlessness of his job to the intern he has driven close to suicide: “What we do is like a military guy in Virginia piloting a drone over Afghanistan launching a missile. It seems like a video game and there aren’t any real people involved. Sometimes we hit the target and sometimes we destroy the building with the Red Cross painted on top.”
It’s a poor way to explain the abuse of power that turns modern politics toxic. It takes him the whole movie to understand that actions have consequences. When he does, he goes full tilt back into the game, this time putting his talent behind the lady doctor running for governor, who deserves his help at last. She might be a lost cause, but this is one knife fight where he just might fight fair.
Running Time 98 minutes
Written by Bill Guttentag and Chris Lehane
Directed by Bill Guttentag
Starring Rob Lowe, Jamie Chung and Julie Bowen