[First published to Show Business Weekly, 11/25/08]
Stephen (John Gallagher, Jr.) is a successful, 25-year-old press secretary who somehow still has morals as he prepares to lead his client to victory in Iowa’s Democratic primary. But he’s flush with optimism, so you know Beau Willimon is going to knock him down in Farragut North. After all, “You don’t get in this game if you’re a pessimist” and “You don’t win unless you’re a realist.”
Keeping to the bland backrooms (designer David Korins favors generic furniture), Willimon writes like a down-tempo Aaron Sorkin, focusing on the Machiavellian fall of his tragic hero. To his credit, Gallagher plays the part naturally: cocky and benevolent at first, then nervous and needy, and finally frightened and violent. He’s got reason to be frightened, too: by taking a meeting with the opposite side’s political manager, Tom (Isiah Whitlock, Jr., who is every bit as smarmy here as he was on The Wire), he compromises his integrity, forcing the question: Did he ever actually have any? Reconsider the way Stevie is introduced: He manipulates Ida, a New York Times reporter, into taking an old opponent’s casual use of the word “putzhead” and declaiming it as a poll-dropping anti-Semitic attack.
The other question — one that director Doug Hughes is well-prepared for — is one of trust and loyalty. Stevie confesses the meeting to his boss, Paul (Chris Noth), and this puts his job on the line. Did his ambitious and shy 20-year-old assistant, Ben (Dan Bittner), leak it? Or was it his 19-year-old intern, Molly (the endearing Olivia Thirlby), whom he slept with last night? These confrontations transform Stevie into a petty monster, but he’s not really changing — his personality is just growing more apparent, leading to the conclusion that politics is just the next logical step for make-up artists.
Between scenes, Joshua White projects election footage and resonant words against the blue backdrop, an over-the-top yet subtle reminder about surfaces. Willimon’s great success here is in his own ability to tell a crazy and somewhat predictable story, and yet slip in a lot of biting criticism not just of politics, but of people in general.