David Fincher's new Netflix series House of Cards revitalizes the political thriller for the 21st century. Starring Kevin Spacy as Congressman Francis Underwood from South Carolina and Robin Wright Penn, House of Cards goes to the heart of modern politics. Like a panoramic novel, the show weaves through the web of lobbyists, the media, and the underworld of politics. Based on a British television series (and novel which I plan to read) of the same name, House of Cards is not necessarily a procedural, but a study of personality and power. Unlike Hollywood films which usually go for satire, Fincher keeps the focus on the realities of 21st century American politics. And what are those? We get a glimpse the unholy alliance of lobbyists, amoeba like multinational corporations, and a mass media undergoing identity crisis. House of Cards follows the tradition of the 1970s paranoid thrillers.
The protagonist is Congressman Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacy), a Democratic Congressman from South Carolina. As a new administration enters the White House, Underwood learns he was passed over for a cabinet position. Like Iago, he's prepared to gain a place in power at any cost including betrayals, manipulation, and lies. Underwood has mastered the art of backroom dealing and drawing people into his orbit. There are no dramatic debates or filibusters in the House floor. All the action and intrigue is off the record through the maze of congressional politics, the media, and the lobbyists.
Kevin Spacey has always possessed an affinity for playing men of power in shifting variations: the mystery man behind the scenes in The Usual Suspects, a terrifying psychopath in Se7en, the comically hateful movie executive in Swimming with Sharks, and the mild mannered office drone turned reborn existentialist in American Beauty. Connections to Shakespeare abound in House of Cards with obvious connections to MacBeth, Othello, and Richard III. The parallels are quite explicit with Spacy's asides to the camera. Making Underwood a Southern politician is fitting as well as he channels the backroom chicanery of Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Clinton's cunning pragmatism, and possibly a smidgen of FDR's charm. Spacy invites us into the his world of fractured morality and and as a result we admire him and root against him, amid a glistening world of power and privilege, albeit never far from the sewer.
All the characters in the show orbit around Congressman Underwood. His wife runs a non-profit with ties to multinational corporations. Clair is just as morally ambiguous as her husband, but not quite as interesting. In another storyline, Francis takes on young Pennsylvania Congressman Peter Lance as his apparent protege in the congress. The most satisfying character arc is that of Zoe, a young blogger/reporter with a talent for getting the scoop. During the series she finds out the dangers of getting too close to Underwood. Out of all the characters, Zoe does develop a conscience and a purpose. Journalists remain the heroes when when it comes to political thrillers in a thread going back to the good old days of paranoia in the 1970s in The Parallax View and All the President's Men. By the end, Zoe and a fellow reporter channel Woodward and Bernstein.
The web of power in American politics is more complex than any time in history. Nevertheless, Americans have always displayed a fascination with understanding power. Robert Caro's biographies of Lyndon Johnson continue to sell, as wells as books on Abraham Lincoln. Steven Spielberg's recent film Lincoln dealt with the intricacies of 19th century politics. We see Lincoln resort to backroom deals to secure passing an amendment to end slavery - making it okay since emancipation was for a higher cause. Today few speak in such terms; those that do are considered anachronistic. After watching House of Cards I noticed few of the characters take a moral stand on anything (except one Claire's underlings at the non-profit who quits to protest the increasing ties between corporations and politicians). In All the President's Men Woodward's secret source Deep Throat told him "to follow the money." By following the money they connected the White House to the Watergate scandal. If one followed all the leads in paranoid thriller genre the truth would lead to the highest reaches of power - usually a shadowy organization. House of Cards weaves a web of power defying explanation and populated with only those who want power. No conspiracies. Just more white noise.
The political thriller is apt territory for Fincher. In arguably his best film Zodiac, Fincher's narrative follows reporters and detectives in their quest to unravel the Zodiac killer case. Their failure to capture the killer haunts them throughout the film and serves a fitting metaphor for the impotence pervading the American psyche in the 1970s- and beyond. A similar hopelessness sneaks through House of Cards. As the politicians and lobbyists spin webs within an increasingly implausible system some of the real political issues raised in the show - education, labor, nuclear energy are no more than pieces on a chessboard. As Bob Dylan once wrote, "you play with my world, like it's your own little toy."