Brian Cox and Jodie Turner-Smith co-star in this limp Peacock thriller that has too many other things on its mind.
Amy Rice’s “The Independent” begins with an intriguing thought experiment: What if John Cena ran for president as a well-intentioned, hyper-charismatic third-party candidate who promised to temper Republican insanity, bypass Democrat inaction, and altogether liberate America from the crypto-fascist corporate interests that have made this country too cancerous to govern? What if — this rather star-studded Peacock original movie teases in its opening flash-forward — that candidate so effectively reconciled the red/blue divide that he was leading the polls just days before the general election?
Those are tantalizing questions, made all the more so by the degree to which Cena’s wannabe himbo-in-chief — a former Olympian who’s now riding a best-selling manifesto called “A Declaration of Independence” all the way to the White House — is both likable in the extreme, and also believable in spite of his inexperience. Evan Parter’s script alludes to the fact that another political outsider has recently managed to become president, so why not Nate Sterling?
If only the answer this movie offered to that question weren’t so frustratingly divorced from its premise. Because despite appearances, “The Independent” isn’t much interested in the implications of a three-horse race for the Oval Office, or the viability of a down-to-earth superman uniting the country with promises that appeal to both sides of the aisle. No, that stuff is just a pretext for a tense but ultimately toothless polemic about the value of truth and the need for an independent press, as the movie shifts its focus to a pair of one-note journalists who work to expose the minor scandal that might threaten Sterling’s campaign and the future of the entire country along with it.
“In a time of universal deceit,” reads the epigram attributed to George Orwell,” telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” True enough, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the right one.
“The Independent” is too threadbare and thinly sketched for us to make that distinction here, and not only because we never have enough evidence to believe that a private snafu might derail a populist movement of MAGA proportions; when the film’s story flips back to the days just before Nate announces that he’s running, it immediately becomes far more concerned with the health of our capital’s newspapers than it is with any of the campaigns they might be about to cover. Our first glimpse inside the newsroom of The Washington Chronicle takes place on the morning after its latest sale to a bunch of nameless billionaires who plan to strip it for parts, with Stephen Lang’s southern-fried editor-in-chief frothing at the mouth about the paper’s need to evolve.
That mandate inspires new hire Eli (Jodie Turner-Smith), in the first of this film’s many implausible scenes, to pitch a story about Virginia public schools to the entire staff. Lang rejects the idea with extreme prejudice, but Eli’s idol senses that she might have the potential to replace him when he retires. His name is Nick Booker, he’s America’s most-read political columnist, and he’s played by a predictably leonine Brian Cox in a performance that lets him chew the scenery like it’s a Happy Meal and drop a few “Succession”-worthy diss bombs along the way. If Turner-Smith’s thankless character is saddled with a few absolute groaners (“Karma is still a bitch,” someone says; “and so am I,” she retorts), some of Cox’s dialogue is sharp enough to suggest what it might sound like if Logan Roy ever developed any real principles.
It isn’t long before the story of the decade falls into Eli’s lap, as her boyfriend (Luke Kirby), who happens to be in Nate’s inner circle, lets slip that his boss is gearing up for a long run. The next thing she knows, Eli finds herself becoming an ace reporter amid Washington’s house of cards — to reference the Netflix show that helped set the template for this kind of beltway thriller, even if “The Independent” opts for ethical posturing over political suspense in a way that cleaves a lot closer to “The Newsroom,” for which Rice worked as a writer.
One day Eli’s hacking away at some disposable content about college dorm essentials, and the next she’s being courted by the Republican nominee for president (an effectively unnerving Ann Dowd) at a Washington steakhouse. When she discovers that something fishy is going on with the jackpot prizes of a nationwide lottery game — a dramatically unearned epiphany, to say the least — a few tugs at the thread or all it takes to pull up a scandal that might forever alter the course of American politics, for better or worse. “Always follow the facts,” Nick barks at his new protege. “Sometimes they don’t lead you where you want to go, but always follow them anyway.”
In this case, that process is clumsily plotted and soured by second-rate skullduggery. Eli’s relationship becomes a conflict of interest that “The Independent” only mines in the most obvious ways, her father is diagnosed with terminal cancer (that tangled story thread used to give Eli more skin in the game, as if the stakes of a presidential election weren’t already personal enough for her), and her investigation into the lotto scheme is defanged by the film’s narrow focus in a way that prevents her from becoming the next Maggie Haberman, let alone the next Carl Bernstein.
It’s a shame that the movie has so little interest in world-building, not only because it would have made the whole enterprise feel more credible, but also because the alternate tomorrow that it sets up is just realistic enough to be compelling — or at least compelling enough for it to be unrealistic. Flat direction makes the writing feel weaker than it is, while full-bodied performances make the drama feel stronger than it was on the page. Cena continues to channel his WWE charm into distressingly uncertain hero types (as opposed to Dwayne Johnson, who forcibly muscles his flawed characters into heroes), as if the actor recognizes the inherent eeriness of his own too-perfect screen image. And Cox… well, at one point he refers to someone as “an arrogant little boat shoe,” which is enough to scratch that Waystar Royco itch for the time being.
In that moment and others, HBO and today’s other entertainment giants cast a long shadow over this too-anonymous production, which offers more unnecessary proof that some of the nascent streamers are still trying to figure out how to make content that rises to the surface. If Peacock is lucky, “The Independent” might follow through on its primary influence, become the platform’s very own “House of Cards,” and pave the way for future success. Of course, that best-case scenario would be an ironic fate for a film about the urgent need for media platforms that don’t serve corporate interests, but life has a funny way of demanding many of the same compromises that movies are able to sidestep altogether.
“The Independent” will be available to stream on Peacock starting Wednesday, November 2.
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