Magazine | October 5, 2015, Issue

In the Arena

The first movie I ever reviewed in these pages, almost ten years ago, was a mediocre adaptation of All the King’s Men, in which Sean Penn was miscast as the Kingfish and a lot of very talented actors wasted their time supporting him. The film was much worse than its source material, but it shared with Robert Penn Warren’s novel a kind of moral fastidiousness, a distaste for actually existing democratic politics and politicians, that’s characteristic of many fictional treatments of American political life.

As Christopher Lehmann wrote around that time in an essay for the Washington Monthly, American novelists and filmmakers are often too in love with primal New World ideas about frontier virtue and Edenic innocence to see the political process with clear eyes. So the various attempts to tell a Great American Political Story mostly portray politics “as a great ethical contaminant and task their protagonists with escaping its many perils with both their lives and their moral compasses intact.”

Lately, prestige television has supplied a qualifier to this generalization: In such shows as House of Cards and Veep, we still have a portrayal of politics as a great ethical contaminant — but one that invites us simply to relish the anti-heroism, and to giggle at the folly of all the ethically compromised buffoonery. Note, though, that both shows are in one way or another British imports — a remake (of a much better show) in the first case, a Brit’s take on America in the second. And note, too, that while both escape the trap of idealism betrayed, neither attempts anything like realism. (Though Veep does sometimes get depressingly close.)

Which is why it’s interesting to watch The Runner, a small movie with an impressive cast that slipped in and out of theaters last month and now can be found mostly on-demand. Like All the King’s Men, it’s about a populist Louisiana politician who makes moral compromises on the path to power, and since it stars Nicholas Cage, you expect some serious, scenery-chewing demagoguery. But the film, instead, is deliberately restrained, modest in scope and ambition, and has little that’s overripe or deliberately melodramatic. It aspires, rather admirably, to political and psychological realism: It wants to get inside the skin of politics and figure out what makes the people who practice it tick . . . or run.

I really wanted it to succeed, not least because one of its producers is Noah Millman, a writer for The American Conservative and a serious observer of our politics. Because of his involvement, every political journalist who ever watched a lousy Hollywood treatment of his industry and thought They should have hired me to consult! would be vindicated if The Runner were a quiet masterpiece.

Alas, it isn’t; even in a film without a Kingfish complex, the pull of that very American moral fastidiousness turns out to be too strong to quite escape.

The story’s inspiration seems to be the Mark Sanford saga: Cage’s protagonist, Colin Price, is a rising-star Democratic congressman representing a majority-black district who gets one wave of media attention defending Gulf Coast fishermen after the BP oil spill — and then another, devastating wave when video leaks online showing him having sex with a (black) fisherman’s wife in a hotel elevator. The movie follows Price and his inner circle — his political advisers (played by Wendell Pierce and Sarah Paulson), his ambitious wife (Connie Nielsen), his ex-politician, alcoholic father (Peter Fonda) — through the fallout, the resignation, the shadow of divorce, and then, inevitably, the intimations of a political comeback.

There are a number of interesting elements here. The difficult relationship between the elder Price (a civil-rights hero as a mayor, then a failed statewide candidate, then a drunk) and his ambitious son effectively evokes the complicated filial dynamics between the two Al Gores, between Birch and Evan Bayh, and between George and Mitt Romney. When Price resigns and then pours his money into legal aid for fishermen, it summons up the ghost of John Profumo, the British politician who did East End charity work for decades after a spies-and-sex scandal ended his career. It also raises an interesting question: If a politician followed Profumo’s example today, would the press assume that it was just a temporary PR move, setting up a comeback? (And would they be correct?)

But despite its smarts, The Runner is hobbled by its determined restraint. Cage actually underplays his part too much: The absence of Huey Long imitations is welcome, but his character needs a little more gonzo charisma, if only to show why everyone would assume that he could get back into politics so fast. By having him spend much of the film looking stricken, The Runner misses the sheer addictive fun of campaigning and strands itself in a self-seriousness that isn’t as realistic as it thinks.

And then it also can’t help stacking the moral deck when Price contemplates his comeback, by providing a kind of guardian devil (Bryan Batt) who offers oil-industry money to grease the skids for his return. If Batt’s character were just a touch more sympathetic, his arguments just slightly more principled, the offer he makes to Price just slightly less corrupting, the movie’s quest for realism would come a lot closer to success. But the “will he sell his soul” final act is unworthy of that aspiration; it’s too tidy, too stark, too unreal. Only in books and movies are things so clear-cut, and once it reminds you that it, too, is just a movie, The Runner loses its claim on our attention.

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