Producers: Ryan Cunningham, Evan Parter, Sam Bisbee, Theodora Dunlap and Caddy Vanasirikul Director: Amy Rice Screenplay: Evan Parter Cast: Brian Cox, Jodie Turner-Smith, Luke Kirby, Ann Dowd, John Cena, Stephen Lang, Willie C. Carpenter, Kecia Lewis, Victor Slezak, Timothy Busfield, Margaret Odette, Frederick Weller, Andrew Richardson, Michael Gandolfini, Alysia Reiner and Damian Young Distributor: Peacock
Aching to emulate classic political thrillers like “All the President’s Men” and “Three Days of the Condor,” documentarian Amy Rice’s “The Independent” instead proves as bland and boring a tale of Washington skullduggery as the third-party candidate it posits as shaking up a presidential race situated in a vaguely 2024-ish national environment.
The premise is that President Archer (Victor Slezak, looking properly forlorn), the colorless Joe Biden-ish Democratic candidate, is being opposed by Republican Senator Patricia Turnbull (Ann Dowd at her cranky best) of Tennessee, a gruff old pro who would become the first female chief executive. But Nate Sterling (John Cena, in utterly over his head), an Olympic decathlon gold medalist and author of a supposedly earth-shaking commonsensical tome called “A Declaration of Independence,” shakes things up by entering the race.
Despite the general opinion among pundits that anyone bucking the two-party monopoly is doomed to fail, Sterling’s campaign takes off, despite the fact that from what we see of his rallies, he offers nothing but the most formulaic recitations of the country’s problems and homey assurances that he’ll take them on when establishment candidates on both sides of the divide will just maintain the corrupt status quo.
Looking on from the press room of the Washington Chronicle, a stand-in, it seems, for the Post, is principled newbie reporter Eli James (Jodie Turner-Smith, surprisingly pallid), whose pitches for exposés on issues like reduced school funding in West Virginia are shot down by grouchy editor Gordon White (Stephen Lang, overplaying at his worst), whose main concerns are circulation and budget cuts in an age in which the ever-changing ownership of newspapers and obsession over the bottom line threaten print journalism’s very existence.
But Nick Booker (Brian Cox, content to coast on his gruff shtick), the paper’s crown jewel whose commentary column is legendary, sees potential in Eli, and after a dinner talk in which he reveals his intention to retire, offers her a job as his assistant during the final months of his tenure. He represents the old school virtues of fact-based integrity and honesty in an increasingly demeaning media environment, an old dinosaur willing to take on sacred cows without fear or favor, so long as his methods stat within the bounds of propriety. Naturally Eli jumps at the chance to work with him.
And she has a potentially big story to work on: a possible finance scam involving siphoning money from lottery winnings and transferring them into a PAC. Eli suspects that it’s designed to benefit Trumbull’s campaign, though Booker, who’s known her for years, doubts that—and it turns out he’s right. Where the dough might really be going is complicated by the fact that Eli’s boyfriend Lucas (Luke Kirby, nondescript) is a major advisor to Sterling.
And Eli is caught in more domestic turmoil, since her father Hal (Willie C. Carpenter), who’s nurtured her dreams and principles, suddenly announces that he has cancer—and she and her mother Lynn (Kecia Lewis) must see to his needs as best they can.
This is the sort of stuff that needs the snap, crackle and pop dialogue spin of an Aaron Sorkin, but what first-time scripter Evan Parter provides is little more than dreary boilerplate. Characters constantly declaim the most obvious banalities, whether hysterically high-minded or smarmily cynical. (Sterling’s speeches wouldn’t pass muster in a high school election, especially as delivered monotonously by Cena, and Cox appears genuinely embarrassed by some of his lines, though he speaks them without the wink he might have added.) As Eli and Booker plod through accounts and records to determine who’s scamming the system, your eyes are likely to glaze over. And the play on the title at the close is puerile.
That’s because the action also needs the zip that somebody like Sorkin—or, in the best cases scenario, an Alan J. Pakula—would have brought to it. Rice certainly doesn’t. The pacing she and editor Gershon Hinkson have chosen is turgid, as if they believed that the audience was so slow that it couldn’t follow the would-be surprises of the narrative unless they were doled out in heavy-handed italics.
Nor does the film look good. Nick Francone’s production design is drab, probably reflecting a modest budget as much as the fact that it was shot in New York City rather than D.C., and David Johnson’s cinematography is utterly prosaic. Jessica Rose Weiss’ score is instantly forgettable.
It’s amazing to note that Parter’s script was held in high regard by the folks who vote on the Blacklist, that famous assemblage of unproduced screenplays deemed worthy of note by its contributors. Given yet another example of a past listing that’s proven a real disappointment on the screen, we should replace “famous” with “infamous” in describing what once seemed a noble effort to get good writing recognized.