This film comes very close to being a mini-classic, but unfortunately misses.
As a take on “American” politics, it hits the target a lot of the time but misses too often to make it a true classic flick.
Kevin Costner gives a mostly terrific performance (the little laugh he uses to telegraph his character’s self-conscious confusion is perfect) along the lines of another great performance of his in THE UPSIDE OF ANGER.
And the little girl who plays his daughter and carries the movie with him, Madeline Carroll, gives a close to Oscar worthy performance, touching almost all points on the spectrum of human emotion. (Mare Winningham deserves an Oscar nomination for what is essentially one scene in the movie.)
But Nathan Lane is miscast as a Bob Schrum-like Democratic campaign manager, attempting to overcome his comic actor schtick for a few dramatic moments and for this viewer, failing.
Stanley Tucci seems more misdirected than miscast as the Rove-like Republican campaign manager. Both he and Lane, along with George Lopez as the local TV station manager, seem to be acting in a different movie from everyone else (obviously the director’s fault—Joashua Michael Stern—either in original casting or in execution).
Tucci’s performance is full of overdone facial expressions (“telegraphing” as it’s sometimes called in the acting biz).
But Kelsey Garmmer as the Republican president does a terrific job balancing the humor with the pathos, and if anything, comes off a little too good to represent our current Republican president. Better than Dennis Hopper does as the Democratic candidate challenging him.
Paula Patton as the reporter, supposedly of Hispanic descent despite an appearance and presence that seems African-American (I know I know these categories are ridiculous and cross lines and should be left to history, but unfortunately they’re still with us in ways that matter to too many on every side of the categorizing), has to navigate a role and a sub-plot story line that isn’t well thought out (either writer Jason Richman’s fault in his original story or Stern’s in his rewriting) and presents too many convenient contrivances (I suspect some scenes that may have made her story arc more believable were sacrificed in the editing), but—and in films it’s an important “but”—she is so lovely to look at it almost makes no difference what her character is asked to try and make believable.
Judge Reinhold has a supporting part that he infuses with his usual wide-eyed but believable comic relief. And there’s other minor characters who do a great job in their roles. Over all it’s a fun movie to watch as an actor, to see the choices made by an array of terrific talents, even the ones that don’t work.
The story is an attempt to say something serious about our two-party system and the ways in which each party distorts its core beliefs in order to achieve or maintain power. It’s also an attempt to say something about the “common man” and his place in that system or lack of it. And quite a noble attempt I believe, even if it misses (the climactic speech is certainly successful and brought a tear to my eye the way patriotic or “little guy” ennobling old Hollywood movies did to me when I was a kid).
The thing that saddened me about this experience, was that there were only three people in the theater watching it last night, while I suspect the theaters showing THE DARK KNIGHT are still getting pretty brisk business. And the political message I find in that blockbuster is one of cynicism (people can’t handle the truth, you have to commit evil to defeat evil, etc.) and irresponsibility (we need heroes to rescue us because we don’t have the fortitude or necessary skills/talent/attributes/etc. to do it ourselves).
It’s an ominous sign for these times, to my mind, that THE DARK KNIGHT with all its despair and gloom and negativity is the big crowd pleaser and an almost classic political parody attempting to empower an audience as well as enlighten and uplift it, isn’t. Because in many ways McCain’s campaign represents the thinking behind THE DARK KNIGHT and Obama’s THE SWING VOTER. Uh oh.