Written by Bill Guttentag and Chris Lehane
Directed by Bill Guttentag
Judging from the comments on its IMDB page, Bill Guttentag’s film Knife Fight is tempting many movie buffs with a reunion of The West Wing veterans Rob Lowe and Richard Schiff in another project about the nuts and bolts of politics. Except Knife Fight isn’t about the issues; instead, it’s yet another film about how one has to be an amoral schemer in order to win a political campaign. Also, neither Aaron Sorkin nor anyone else from The West Wing was involved in writing Knife Fight, which quickly becomes clear as the film staggers through its messy plot.
The film announces its awkwardness in the very first scene. Lowe’s high-powered political consultant is introduced via hackneyed first-person narration from his assistant (Jamie Chung) and then the narration is never to be heard from again, a classic bad-screenwriting blunder. From there the entire litany of political-movie cliches is thrown in: one character asserts that he should never be caught with a dead girl or a live boy, and not one but two different old saws about knife fights are spoken in the movie.
Lowe’s character is juggling two difficult campaigns, as a Kentucky governor (Eric McCormack) and California senator (David Harbour) find themselves embroiled in scandal. Plus, a San Francisco doctor (Carrie-Anne Moss) wants to run a crazy outsider campaign for governor of California. Plus Chung’s character is disillusioned with the job and wants to go to medical school. Plus there’s the local TV anchor (Julie Bowen) with the hots for Paul, and Schiff as a sleazy private eye.
Perhaps real-life political consultant Chris Lehane, who co-wrote with Guttentag, wanted to show how busy Paul Turner would be in the real world. In movie world, however, that is far too much plot for 100 minutes. Adding any one of the Moss/McCormack/Harbour characters opposite Lowe and his team would have been enough drama for one movie. Having all three of them causes difficult shifts in tone, as the idealistic Moss story suddenly switches gears into the other two, more deeply cynical, plots.
The only time Knife Fight seems tonally correct is when it observes that strangest bit of political theater: the campaign ad. The ads in this film walk the line between accurate imitations and parody. When one of Lowe’s campaigns produces a series of spots about its man’s heroism in Afghanistan, the commercials seem to be both an uncomfortable exploitation of wounded veterans, and a satirical jab at real-life ads which do the same. When an opponent highlights his Tea Party machismo by posing in sunglasses with a chainsaw, it’s funny simply because it is so true. Lehane might have been able to make the rest of the movie work if he had demonstrated the same deft touch with the absurdity of the process that he shows in the ads.
The best thing about Knife Fight is that its awkward script is being performed by a cast full of ringers. From an absurdly over-qualified Saffron Burrows as McCormack’s wife, to Alan Dershowitz himself as a high-powered lawyer, every single actor in the movie has demonstrable presence. All of that acting talent inevitably leads to some good scenes: the first scene between Moss and Lowe, where he tries to talk her out of entering politics, is legitimate dynamite. Unfortunately there are many more howlers than quality scenes in Knife Fight, far too many to keep an audience’s attention.