Politics man…boy, what a dirty game those Ivy Leaguers play. If that sentence somehow offers insight to you, then get excited for Knife Fight. Presenting politics as a game of spin doctoring, lies, and damage control has been done many time before and done better. However, with a script from veteran political consultant Chris Lehane (who did a little time cleaning laundry for both Bill Clinton and Al Gore) and directing duties handed over to Oscar-winning documentary specialist Bill Guttentag (Soundtrack for a Revolution), at least it’s a project made by people who care and have noble intentions. What they reveal about the backdoor wheelings and dealings behind a major campaign isn’t exactly revelatory to anyone with an internet connection, but it is a reasonably entertaining political satire for anyone seeking a little Sorkin-light entertainment. You’ll have to accept on-the-nose lines of dialogue like the titular, “To win in politics you’ve got to be the person who is wiling to bring a gun to a knife fight” and chuckle at the overly verbose stabs at jokes. But hey, it’s just one of those movies.
Rob Lowe brings his sleazy/cool charms to the Lehane stand-in role as a White House aide turned political strategist. Obviously, it’s election season so Lowe is in his element wheeling and dealing through multiple campaigns from his San Francisco base. First there’s a Kentucky governor (Eric McCormack) who unwisely decides that campaign season is the time to have an affair with a young female intern (guess he never heard of The Ides of March or, you know, Bill Clinton). Over in California, Lowe’s also supervising the clean up surrounding a senator (David Harbor) being blackmailed by a masseuse who gave him an extra special massage with her mouth. So Lowe embarks on the usual games of blackmailing and cutting deals with his media contact amusingly named Peaches (Julie Bowen). Somehow he does all the cross-country movin’ and shakin’ with a staff of two: an idealistic young protégé (Jamie Chung, whose character is also a lesbian for some indiscernible reason outside of punchlines) and a burned out buddy with a taste for strip clubs (Richard Schiff). It all inevitably takes its toll Lowe’s psyche and he’s just about to lose his love of the game until an idealistic single mother doctor with a squeaky clean background (Carrie Anne Moss) decides to run for governor of California and needs his help. Sounds like just the thing to cleanse Lowe’s soul and win some audience sympathy, doesn’t it?
You’ve seen this all before, but it’s done reasonably well. Lowe and Schiff come imported directly from The West Wing, so they know how to make long-winded speeches sing and bitter barbs sting. They’re performances essentially carry the film, along with a few good gags given to McCormack (like when he complains about having to go jogging after running a smear campaign against his opponent based on physical fitness). The movie’s display of how clueless young women can be chewed up and spit out as media fodder during an election campaign is a bit tiresome particularly after the exact same plotline was played without the laughs in The Ides of March, but at least the filmmakers are smart enough to acknowledge the misogyny inherent to those scandals rather than further feeding into it. At times it feels like the filmmakers are juggling a few too many plotlines at once and it can be hard to tell which scandal is which or even sort out how it’s possible that three people could be running damage control on three major campaigns simultaneously. Characters are often underdeveloped (like Chung’s perky idealist) or devolve into sketch comedy archetypes (McCormack’s sleazy horndog, Bowen’s career-obsessed ice queen). However, despite the shaky script from two inexperienced screenwriters, enough of the jokes land and enough moments feel genuine for the movie to pass by pleasantly enough.
The biggest problem facing Knife Fight is something completely out of the hands of its creators. Unfortunately for Guttentag and Lehane, both Wag the Dog and In the Loop exist and their movie just doesn’t stack up to either. These guys aren’t comedy masterminds like Barry Levinson or Armando Iannucci. They can’t match the laugh count of either filmmaker and oddly even though Lehane played this game for real, their movie doesn’t feel nearly as realistic. It’s more of a light political satire along the lines of Jay Roach’s recent HBO efforts Game Change and Recount, only without the factual basis. Knife Fight is about as challenging to watch as an episode of Fraser, only with a political punch to make the audience feel smart for understanding the jokes instead of references to fine wines. It’s a perfectly pleasant time waster, just nothing particularly special like Levinson or Iannucci’s cracks at spin doctoring. See it if you’re desperate for a Sorkin-light fix in between seasons of The Newsroom, but don’t expect much. If you’re looking for a cartoon political satire with actual punch and laughs, might I suggest Joe Dante’s criminally underappreciated HBO movie The Second Civil War, which is 15 years old yet still more current, relevant, and original than Knife Fight.