Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men. – Lord Acton to Bishop Creighton, 1887
Francis "Frank" Underwood is absolutely corrupted, and isn't a "great man," except perhaps in the eyes of lesser men, no less corrupted but out-maneuvered by Underwood in the give-and-take-and-extortion business of Washington D.C. They pay him the respect and deference he expects of them, because they lost to him in the ruthless, cannibalistic pursuit of power that makes the slaughter of the French knights at Agincourt look like a Kennedy clan game of touch football. That comparison is of Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version of Henry V, not the Olivier.
Who is Frank (or Francis) Underwood? He is the leading protagonist of Netflix's feature televised series, "House of Cards," which debuted earlier this month. Frank Underwood is the majority whip in the House of Representatives, shilling for handouts and preferential treatment for his South Carolina district. A protagonist is a leading character in a story who moves the story along by his actions. He could be a hero or a villain. Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, is a villain. Throughout the series, he makes no apology for it. Quite the opposite. He boasts of it.
In "House of Cards," there are no heroes. Only villains of various shades of villainy, from gray to the blackest of blacks, fulfilling politically correct requisites on diversity, covering all the affirmative action mandates in gender, race, ethnic origin, and religion. "House of Cards" is an equal opportunity employer in its portrayal of corruption. In that respect, the series is very realistic, a reflection of "the way things are," in the spirit of droll naturalism.
It is even more cynical than the 1962 film version of Allen Drury's Advise and Consent, which portrays the sordid lengths to which politicians will go to defeat a nominee for Secretary of State (played by Henry Fonda as Robert Leffingwell, a left-winger proposing a treaty with the Soviets), in which the villains are "right-wingers" who find dirt on a Senator whose confirmation vote is critical.
"House of Cards" is an American knock-off of a hit British BBC trilogy that ran between 1990 and 1995. It is the title of the first of that series, followed after critical acclaim and popular demand by "To Play the King" and "The Final Cut." It follows the general plot line of the British trilogy, adapted for American audiences and issues. Season One of "House of Cards," in thirteen episodes, follows that plot line so closely, even in numerous scenes, that it's as though Spacey, his co-producers, writers, and directors laid a blank transparency over the trilogy and used a Magic Marker to write in where things should be changed, tweaked, and wrinkled.
Plot spoilers follow, so, legit cavete.
"House of Cards" is one of the most educational TV series to come along in a long time, posing as fiction, yet still instructive about how much of a giant whorehouse Washington D.C. is, not only in its politics, but in journalism and personal ethics. As knock-offs go, it's very well done, although Spacey frequently interrupts scenes and conversations with Shakespearean "asides" to the viewers. Underwood is a perfect name of what you would find beneath rotted wood, maggots, so I don't think the name is accidental. Likely, neither is the name of his chief aide, Doug Stamper, played by Michael Kelly (the surname is a leftover from the British series). Stamper puts out fires and crises with extortion and blackmail by prospecting for and cultivating dirt on Underwood's enemies, with a little bribery on the side.
In the beginning of the series, Underwood plots to regain his nomination as Secretary of State, after a newly elected president, a very hollow man, reneges on his promise to nominate Underwood, and nominates someone else. Underwood contrives to get the new nominee withdrawn and a Hillary Clinton clone substituted, and then he's off and running to fresh new conspiracies.
Incredibly, all the villains are Democrats. No Republican has put in an appearance yet, although that might change in Season Two. Republicans are mentioned as the opposition, although, to tell the truth, and to judge by the behavior and record of the Republicans, the series could just as well be a portrayal of their political means and ends. Look how they keep an arm's length from the Tea Party and seasoned politicians (e.g., Allen West) who hold Tea Party convictions. Not to mention their flip-flopping on issues such as the budget, military spending, and immigration.
The story is compelling because it realistically portrays the sprawling Washington whorehouse. The most pathetic character is the vice president, based vaguely on Vice President Joe Biden, whose biggest complaint was that the president didn't give him one of the pens used to sign an education bill, engineered by Spacey, souvenir pens given to Spacey and a couple of kids in a scene reminiscent of Obama signing an executive order for gun control or Obamacare.
Overall, the sleaze dramatized in "House of Cards" is so well done you half expect it to leave crud or mold on your screen.
The British series debuted on the expiration of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's tenure. It's claimed that it helped to secure John Major the election, because "House of Cards" was broadcast days before an election. Based on the novel by Michael Dobbs, Major said of it that it had done for his triumph "what Dracula did for baby-sitting." The British series was meant to repudiate the Tories and conservatism, because Francis Urqhart (played with bone-chilling correctness by Ian Richardson), the protagonist and aside-maker of that series, is a Tory Conservative more coldly ruthless and amoral than is Underwood in his smug, cynical, and contemptuous rancidness.
But one must wonder what else could be the intention of the American version but to repudiate the Democrats.
The difference here is that Underwood is a Democrat who is manipulating people and things to expand or preserve government controls in education, development, the environment, and so on, not because he sincerely believes in or values these things, but because they're stepping stones to power. His wife, Claire, runs her of charity, CWI, which caters to the poor in Africa and is always politicking for donor support. Her campaign for money becomes enmeshed in Underwood's schemes.
Actress Robin Wright, who plays Claire, remarked that the character is "Lady Macbeth to Underwood's Macbeth." As a couple who tolerate each other's infidelities, and who regard their marriage as a kind of non-aggression pact and alliance in pursuit of power, they reminded me most of Bill and Hillary Clinton. For all I know, Frank and Claire Underwood were modeled on the Clintons, another Macbethian couple. There's nothing in the story that indicates otherwise. (Except that Robin Wright's Claire is a knock-out and less of a windbag than is Hillary.)
It even features a doppelganger of the British female journalist who's angling for power and gets herself in cahoots with Underwood. Zoe Barnes is a pushy, ambitious, obnoxious little vixen who also becomes Underwood's sharp-tongued mistress. In the first of the British series, the journalist, Mattie, a possible thorn in Urqhart's side, is murdered by him when he throws her off the roof garden of Parliament, even though she professes her love for him and tries to reassure him of her loyalty.
What Season Two has in store for Zoe Barnes remains to be seen. Underwood has personally murdered a conflicted Representative, Peter Russo of Pennsylvania, who was a loose cannon in Spacey's plans. He murders him as coldly as he killed an injured dog in the first episode, ostensively to put it out of its misery, but also because he seems to enjoy killing as an expression of his power. As with a character from the British series, Russo's drug and drinking problems become a threat to Underwood. Season One's last episode has Zoe Barnes suddenly realizing that Spacey and his Stamper fixer-aide might have been behind a lot of the nasty stuff.
At this point, I think the American version of HOC will do to the Democrats what it's alleged the British series did to the Tories. To date, all the protagonists in it are progressive Democrats pushing welfare state, environmental, and fascist economic programs (business/government development partnerships). And they're all pragmatic, compromising, malleable villains, if not conspirators against the president or other politicos.
This is how American TV series and movies usually smear the Republicans or anyone else who opposes the Democratic agenda or Progressivism. Since 9/11, Hollywood has churned out over a dozen anti-American movies. Usually the uncaring, cruel, and nasty villains are Republicans. So, if Season Two of the series continues (it's "in development"), and remains an adumbrated replicant of the British series, the Democrats will be painted in blacker terms than anyone could ever have imagined. No "right-wing" weblog or newspaper or magazine could do a more thorough job of it than has "House of Cards."
And unless the series departs from the British model, there is a question of how another thirteen episodes of it can be stretched out to the climax. The British series ends (in "The Final Cut") with a triumphant Urqhart riding to Buckingham Palace as the new Prime Minister. He has forced the King to abdicate, and has vanquished all his enemies, in the Party and out of it. And he doesn't look in the least troubled by his crimes, which were committed wholesale.
So, as a prediction, it's likely that Frank Underwood will manipulate his way the White House at the end of the American version. He is a consummate manipulator and string-puller. Please excuse the speculation. It can't be helped. Democrats are like that. Look at President Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton. Their political and personal careers could be dramatized just as well as Frank Underwood's, with the focus on the darker chapters of their rise to power. Which means everything about them.
The only "anti-capitalist" elements in the American version are Claire Underwood's foundation, "Clean Water Initiative (CWI), a billionaire who somehow owns a lot of nuclear power plants, and some natural gas conglomerate, the latter two entities intimately tied to the president and to the plot and the competition for government favors. But I suppose that if you were going to indict the Democrats, you would need a couple of "private" interests lobbying for those favors (a la Orren Boyle's Associated Steel Company in Atlas Shrugged). The Republicans could also be indicted for the same practice. But in Spacey's "House of Cards," all stops are pulled and the indictment is merciless.
However, if the series does take a noticeable turn away from the British model, it could only mean that the producers were lectured to or warned by the White House and the DNC and other parties to "cool it," and find some other villains to pick on.
I have never liked Kevin Spacey as an actor. In his past hits, such as American Beauty (1999) and L.A. Confidential (1997), his cynical, sneering mien was less developed but no less repellant than it is in "House of Cards." It never goes away, just as the malevolent masculinity of Robert Mitchum never left him even when he played good guys (and he perfected that attribute as the menacing, nihilist villain Max Cady in Cape Fear, 1962). But, here is the paradox: Spacey is a Hollywood liberal. He is a close friend of Bill Clinton, once calling him "one of the shining lights of the political process." He is friends with Hugo Chavez, the Marxist Venezuelan dictator. According to Wikipedia, he has contributed over $42,000 to Democratic candidates and committees.
So, why has he produced a series that damns the Democrats, and, by implication, the Progressive agenda to turn the U.S. into a welfare state and the government into a "soft" fascist régime? If Netflix is right and the series becomes a hit, the Democrats may become a permanent dart board for anyone who doubts the propriety of the "democratic" (read "populist" or "statist") process. In 2010, Spacey said that broadcasters should carry "legitimate" political ads for free during election periods. Who would decide which ads are "legitimate" and which or not, he does not say. We already have a Federal Election Committee that does that. Spacey was asked by Wolf Blitzer about his predilection for political movies:
Emmy award-winning actor Kevin Spacey, star of the new film Casino Jack, says he blames television networks “to some degree” for lobbyist influence on the political process. He says television networks should run legitimate political ads "for free" as a public service.
“Well, I think you have to separate the idea of that what lobbyists can do is be an informational conduit for Congressman and Senators to understand specific bills and specific issues in other countries but at the same time, I think that there is no doubt that the amount of influence and power and money dampens the political process. I think it discourages people from public office,” he told CNSNews.com at the E Street Cinema before the Washington screening of the film sponsored by the Creative Coalition.
In a Hollywood Reporter interview, he said:
Spacey: "The lobbying industry and what it has done in terms of Washington politics, and Casino Jack (and Recount about the Gore-Bush issue in the Florida vote count of 2000)…I'm very driven by the opportunity to examine current situations and current things happening in the world…. I think these are very important subjects for us to understand and see how we got where we are and if we can make it better than it is…."
Interviewer: "And reality is almost as outrageous as art, you can't even make this stuff up half the time."
Spacey: "You're right. I would go back to the hotel in Baltimore where we were shooting the first season, and I'd watch the news at night, this last election cycle… and I'd think, our story lines are not that crazy."
Crazy as a fox? Or just plain crazy? We won't know the answer to this paradox until Season Two of "House of Cards" is aired (or live-streamed on computers). After all, Spacey, Fincher and the scriptwriters could have easily remained more faithful to the purpose of the British version, which was to repudiate Thatcher and her policies, and instead targeted the Republicans for political and dramatic excoriation. It wouldn't have taken much in the script or in the characterizations.
If Spacey is accusing the lobbying industry of being venal, conspiratorial, and corrupting, he should know that it takes two to tango. If Congressmen and Cabinet heads and bureaucrats weren't so venal, conspiratorial, and corruptible, he would have no complaint.
He could go back to the live stage and give Ian Richardson a run for his money in Macbeth or Richard the Third.
Otherwise, go figure.