Film and Television Features

House of Cards

Actors, even great actors, can go a whole career without finding a role that so gels with their innate personality, so manifests the real human being they are, and so clearly fills them with utter glee to play, that we declare they were "born to play it".  The trouble is, without such a role, we rarely remember their greatness with ease. Where Kevin Spacey is concerned, he came sufficiently close in American Beauty to be talked about in the same company of some of our best actors, but upon watching a few minutes of the new Netflix series, House of Cards, it becomes clear that he has finally found his birthright.  Spacey wears the role of Congressmen and House Majority Whip Frank Underwood like a finely tailored Saville Row suit, relishing his facility with easy manipulation and frequent 4th wall asides.  This is the role he was born to play.

The series is based on a BBC programme of the same name which I'm sorry to say I haven't seen, despite it staring me in the face every night on Netflix.  Regardless the source, it has been expertly adapted by writer/producer Beau Willimon to the US political scene, with a keen understanding of how the Washington power game is played.  The Majority Whip is the guy that delivers the votes of his party by handing out favors to fence sitters or exacting retribution on those who cross the party line.  Despite the important, powerful position he is in, the series begins as Underwood has been passed over for a bid to become Secretary of State, which would have given him influence on a global level.  After nursing his wounds briefly he devises a plan to punish and triumph over all those who wronged him.  The working out of this grand strategy, setbacks and all, is what the series ultimately is about.  Frank is joined in his quest for power by his own Lady Macbeth, played by Robin Wright.  Wright is a chilly presence in the series, her middle-aged body toned to an almost preposterous degree by what seems to be an exercise obsession.  They are drawn to others, as soapier elements are introduced into the plot, but they have some kind of fierce attachment to each other despite a mutual understanding of physical requirements, like codependent power-players.  

But what really gives House of Cards its juice is its depiction of how the game is played.  Underwood is a master politician because he is an expert at reading his adversaries, which turn out to be everybody else.  He is utterly charming 95% of the time, even when faced with bitter opposition, as he knows that most people like nothing more than to be sucked up to.  But when he spots a weakness, and the charm is useless, he can pounce like a Bengal Tiger.  He, and all the other politicos in the show, are distinguished by their facility with lying, which they do as easily as breathing.  We come to realize, if we didn't know already, that lies and bullshit are the engine that makes politics in America go.  But the best part is, this rather dim view of the sausage making of government is delivered with exuberance and style, not to mention a few laughs.  Spacey's side comments to the camera, a device which was retained from the original series, prove a rich source of humor and political wisdom.  Sometimes only a brief glance is required for us to read his true feelings.  It's a dangerous device which could have proved grating, but I never tired of it.  

The show has at least three different directors by my count, including David Fincher (The Social Network) and James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross), and they maintain a fairly consistent look and pace.  The first episode, directed by Fincher, begins on a highly Fincherian note as Spacey's Underwood mercy kills a suffering dog, just hit by a car, with a little too much equanimity. The visual style he establishes, elegant and occasionally moody, is carried throughout so it doesn't feel disjointed in the way that Twin Peaks sometimes did on the few episodes where David Lynch was at the helm.  Then again Fincher, as terrific as he is, is no Lynch.  

But what will probably turn out to be the most significant aspect of the show is its presentation, which is on the streaming site Netflix.  All 13 episodes were released at once, which provides the series binge-watcher with a good way to kill time.  This way of viewing a brand new show is probably unprecedented, and is akin to watching a 10 hour movie, like Shoah, well, perhaps not exactly like Shoah, over three or four nights.  The only problem is, once it's over, and you're eager for more, you have no idea how long the wait is going to be for more episodes, if they are even coming at all.  But the tradeoff is it's a totally different way of experiencing television; commercial free, outside of the network system and flexible to the consumer.  It's hard to see how this model will not catch on, given the advantages.  In the end, people have to watch it, and subscribe to the streaming service, in order to make the producers see dollar signs.  Stay tuned.