by MICHAEL MORRISSEY
Although America may be the world’s most powerful enforcer
of “democracy”, both world policeman and world bully, it is
the internal power institutions such as the FBI and the White
House that often come in for some tough moral scrutiny from
scriptwriters, who presumably still remain in the land of the
living, whereas in many Latin American or African countries they wouldn’t.
House of Cards and Betrayal screening at the same time, plus
the more “straightforwardly” criminally themed The Blacklist,
make Sunday night a bonanza viewing experience for those who
want to feel coldly thrilled and warmly challenged to unravel a Gordian knot of the good, the bad and the morally indifferent. All three series are maturing nicely, but it is House of Cards that is a
standout overall, thanks to the immoral authority of Kevin Spacey, whose cold reptilian glance and Machiavellian calculation make the spine shiver.
A chance encounter with a website reminded me — how could I have forgotten? — that House of Cards was also an English series way back in 1990 based — like the current American version — on the novels
of Michael Dobbs. Whereas the villain of the English series was a Conservative (what else?), the bad guy in the new version is —
gasp! — a Democrat. The overall message could well be that politics has a tendency to warp the moral compass of those who swim in its murky waters. I would like to think that our Western politicians don’t murder to achieve their ends — that standards of political conduct have improved since the time of the Borgias — but watch
out for darker doings than we have seen to date.
And what we have seen is dark enough. Congressman and House Majority whip Francis Underwood, aka Kevin Spacey, never does anything without an underhand motive. Before our appalled gaze, we see
him manipulate Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) as though he was a spineless emotional puppet. Russo has a weakness for alcohol, drugs, prostitutes and his comely executive assistant. He is also a hyprocrite who says privately he doesn’t believe in God, while publicly claiming that it was his faith in God that enabled him to give up drinking. His own political ambition, more likely. Russo bounces from the psychological well into which he has fallen and comes back sober, capable and fired up with new ambition.
But not for long. A recent episode saw him easily rattled by a grilling on his dubious private life and a partial return to his old ways. Meanwhile, Underwood has convinced a rather gullible president that a guy who admits to drugs and drinking (although sex scandals
are kept hush hush) is a return-to-grace story that the American
public will love. Only in America.
On the other hand, Russo, at least, is honest in his lustful passion
for assistant Christina Gallagher (Kristen Connelly), whereas
Underwood is supremely calculating, even in the bedroom.
Underwood’s wife, played with cool verve by Robin Wright, is a firm supporter of her husband’s manipulative ways, while secretly having an affair. And Underwood feeds information in exchange for sexual favours to improbably young ambitious reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), whose rise to prominence resulted in the old-fashioned
editor of the Washington Herald’s former tough but principled editor being fired for sacking her.
Underwood is never really intimidated by anyone, as the loudmouthed teacher union executive, Marty Spinella (Al Sapienza), learns to his cost.
The direct talk into the camera technique as performed by Underwood is a device that breaches the illusion of reality to dramatic effect. It serves to enlarge the personality of the speaker, revealing inner thoughts and opinions in the manner of a talked-out-loud stream of consciousness, or a soliloquy.
Hopefully this technique won’t become too popular, as it would quickly become tiresome if every prominent character kept asiding to the audience.
In the hands of and eyes of master actor Spacey, even a glance can be telling. A hard act to follow — even for Spacey himself.