What a blast! I loved Knife Fight, and my only complaint is, I wish it were a cable tv drama so I could look forward to 12 episodes in successive seasons. Lacking that, what we have here is an hour and forty minutes of fresh, fast-moving with a wham-bang cadence, and entertaining drama on a serious subject. It's a political campaigning palooza. It's dark and light at the same time, occasionally managing to be funny. It's the best of the worst. And it zings off a few little surprises along the way that I will not reveal -- no spoilers here.
Rob Lowe takes on a big role, Paul Taylor, and he carries if off both with weight and levity. Paul Taylor is a ruthless master media strategist and fix-it guy for hire. He is the Democrats' version of Roger Ailes before Ailes owned Fox News. Paul's character could have been played down to a silly stick figure. Instead, Lowe performs here at his very best in my opinion, his most complicated and believable, and most fun to watch.
Paul's sidekick, Kerstin Rhee, played by rising star Jamie Chung, is a junior associate who pulses with newfound talent, an inquiring mind, and a zest for following Paul where the action is. She has an idealistic streak too. Her ethical sonar reads trouble at times.
Paul also calls in a master on reserve, played by Richard Schiff, making for a nice West Wing moment. Thankfully, Lowe's and Schiff's characters are just different enough from West Wing, and the two actors are strong enough, that the West Wing allusion does not distract, but rather, adds a bonus.
Paul feels a pinch of conscience that leads him to fire off in another direction -- another complicated direction, that is. The ethics on display include lots of bad stuff, but not all black and white. Jamie Chung, for her part, plays the ingenue -- but an unconventional one. Playing the part of a first-generation American of Korean descent, she sparkles with intelligence, intrigue, and self-assured sex appeal with a twist. She likes women but when asked about that, her answer is confidently ambivalent. Her first-generation assimilation to American political culture adds an unspoken smack of discord: she comes quietly to grips with the money-fueled warlike media tactics of Knife Fight, perhaps wondering if this indeed is the ways and means of, well, American politics today. If so, what is she doing?
The cadence of this film is a lot of fun -- successive bang, bang, bang. Because Paul Taylor is a consultant, he's got his hands in several campaigns at once. We're drawn rapidly into each of those campaigns and its characters, and we switch from one to the next and back.
Paul Taylor's media prowess is made credible in this story first by his cavalier counsel and the respect he commands, and also, by the spectacular commercials he produces. We get to see them. Those commercials are part of the story, not ancillary to it. The commercials are like Super Bowl caliber.
The rest of the supporting cast's performances are more mixed, but no one detracts. I especially liked David Harbour as US Senator Stephen Green D; and Brooke Newton as Tawny, a prostitute turned masseuse turned ____ (spoiler avoidance); and Paul Ghiringhelli as conservative tv station mogul Rick Sanchez.
What Wag The Dog [HD] did to make the White House at wartime into a drama of media politics, Knife Fight does for state and federal campaigns. The movie, while providing entertainment, exposes political characters and ruthless, sometimes outlandish media tactics and abuses. It probes and exposes ethical dilemmas and overreach, without being didactic. This is not the Brady Bunch. There is no Mike Brady giving lessons about what's right and wrong at the end of the show. Actually, that may be a disappointment to some reviewers who seem to be looking for either an instructional film ready-made for a high school civics class or a West Wing reunion screenplay penned by Aaron Sorkin. This is neither. Don't look for that here.
Even if this *were* an Aaron Sorkin production which it is not, Sorkin would be the first to tell you his trademark political fiction is not meant to be a brief for good government or good media. When The Newsroom: The Complete First Season made its debut, Sorkin told NPR that: "My sights are set no higher than entertaining you for the hour that I've asked for your attention. This isn't a screed or an op-ed piece of any kind. I'm not trying to change your mind. My goals are exactly the same as the goals of the producers of 'NCIS.' I just want to entertain you."
Judged by that standard, this movie rings up the full five stars in my view. (Incidentally, I don't like Newsroom because, despite Sorkin's intentions, I find it too didactic and idealistic in execution to the point of being maddeningly unreal.) While packing a punch of entertainment, Knife Fight plumbs the netherworld of political media in ways that *might* prompt philosophical reflection if you care about American politics and democratic ideals. For sure, you'll see big problems on the screen -- people doing bad things and getting away with it. You may not see easy answers though, unless you believe we can snap our fingers and get big money and big media buys out of politics.