Chess, Vodka, iPhones and Cigarettes. A review of ‘House of Cards’

When, recently, I was discussing the career of one of Hollywood’s most revered and admired actors over coffee with a friend, I made the mistake of asking “When was the last time Kevin Spacey made a good film?” Please don’t get me wrong; as far as I am concerned, the great man can have a free pass for the rest of his life. He could ‘do a Nicolas Cage’ and make terrible films from now on out and would still be a legend.

Any actor who can count Glengarry Glen Ross, The Usual Suspects, Se7en, L.A. Confidential and American Beauty off the fingers of his left hand should be able to count off a few Horrible Bosses on his right. However; has he really been living up to his high standards over the last few years?

Horrible Bosses, horrible film.

In 2011, Spacey played Sam Rogers in J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, a chilling calm-before-the-storm tale of 24 hours at an investment bank before the bottom fell out of the global economy in 2008. In the film Rogers’ moral objections to the very large rug that is about to be pulled out from under the feet of the firm’s investors fall on deaf ears as the inevitable tsunami gathers power and momentum.

Power, momentum, (im)morality and manipulation are the lifeblood of the updated House of Cards – now exclusive to NetFlix. The political thriller, written by Michael Dobbs, was first adapted for the screen in the highly acclaimed 1990 BBC series. More than two decades later the intriguing tale of smoke, mirrors and political manoeuvring has been flown across the pond to Washington, D.C.

To the relief of all advocates of Kevin Spacey’s talent, this series offers him what may become one of the most significant roles of his career. Francis ‘Frank’ Underwood, House Majority Whip and omnipotent puppet-master, is out for blood after he is passed up for a cabinet position by the newly elected president whom he had helped gain office. From this point on he sets about pulling the strings and moving the pieces of the political puzzle in order to avenge this betrayal.

The game of chess is often rather clumsily used to convey the notion of control and ‘how to play the game’ but when handled subtly (think The Wire season 1) it adds depth and understanding to any drama. On numerous occasions we see Underwood engaged in a solitary game, playing both sides, as his machinations take shape. It is an obvious metaphor but not one that is overplayed.

wire chess
The Wire – The chess scene – ’nuff said.

He is venomous, ruthless and quick-witted and much like Spacey himself Frank is an enigmatic figure who plays his cards extremely close to his chest. His private life is kept very private and indeed we only visit the home that Frank shares with wife Claire (Robin Wright) at night – shrouded in darkness.

His mischievous eyes and unnerving smile often betray a very different meaning to the yarn being spun in his soft, lyrical South Carolina drawl to any number of unsuspecting victims. One ingenious element of the show is the inclusion of asides by Underwood, spoken only to the viewer. They are acerbic, sarcastic or downright rude but always brutally honest. It is therefore a challenge for us not to empathise with him despite his unscrupulous behaviour.

The strong ensemble cast: Constance Zimmer, Kate Mara, Spacey, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Kristen Connolly, Corey Stoll, Sakina Jaffrey.

This is not to say that he is dishonest and manipulative with all those he deals with. I have seen few onscreen couples quite as formidable as Mr. and Mrs. Underwood. And few that are quite as open and honest with each other. Extra-marital relationships are generally hidden by the guilty party but the Underwoods bare all to one another. Frank engages in an affair with the young and determined Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a journalist whose career at the Washington Herald is faltering even before it has begun. Information that is leaked to her (via Twitter and other social media on her iPhone – of course) aids Frank in his manoeuvres and makes Barnes a star overnight. She does, however, prove herself to be a far more tenacious and resilient character than one might first think. Her investigations towards the end of the first series may well cause Frank problems at the beginning of the next… We shall have to wait and see.

Robin Wright’s Claire does not, as many politician’s wives seem to, stand in her husband’s shadow. The head of her own company, the ‘Clean Water Initiative’, she is independent and individually successful. Her affair is with a long-lost love, photographer Adam Gallaway (the token Englishman – Ben Daniels). He is the kindred ‘free spirit’ that Claire once was and who she yearns for but does not love.

underwoods and stamper
The Underwoods and Doug Stamper, the coolest third wheel in history. 

Frank’s trusted right-hand man is Doug Stamper (a very impressive Michael Kelly). He is obedient and efficient but is shown to be a compassionate and more ‘human’ character than his immediate superior. Especially when dealing with alcoholic, cocaine addict Congressman Peter Rousso (Corey Stoll) and ex-prostitute Rachel Posner – two characters picked up and thrown out by the whirlwind of deception and political posturing of this first series.

For those who have yet to watch the first 13 episodes, I would urge you to do so. There are really no poor performances in this series and its success lies in the relative simplicity of its plot. There is certainly enough for the multiple directors (including David Fincher and Joel Schumacher) and actors to get their teeth into but the writing is concise, focused and uncomplicated. It is therefore highly engaging, intellectually stimulating and most of all, it is believable. The storyline and characters that Beau Willimon (screen writer) has created are genuine, multi-faceted and believably real.

house of cards flag

The credits of House of Cards feature an inverted Star-Spangled Banner flying over panoramic views of Washington, DC. I don’t know that this programme necessarily shows the U.S. political system to be in distress, but the fragility that it alludes to his apt. I eagerly await the second installment to see how the cards will fall.