There's a time-honored tradition in the movies of casting the government as the bad guy, but it seems like Uncle Sam is doing overtime as the villain these days. It's a bit like the mid-'70s, when the excesses of the Nixon administration made for dark, paranoid thrillers like The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, and The Conversation. The main difference is, you know, those movies were actually good.
Clumsy war-on-terror critiques like Lions for Lambs, Rendition, and the godawful Redacted aren't at that level. The films that have most successfully channeled the trauma of our current bad government have done so indirectly. Take Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men. It's set not in Washington, or the Middle East, but in Texas -- and in 1980, which is the justification for Javier Bardem's preposterous hairstyle. But as Alec Baldwin pointed out not long ago on HuffPo, this brilliant, brooding, and terrifying meditation on senseless violence definitely has something to do with the country's current war fatigue.
Now Paul Schrader's The Walker joins the mix. It doesn't work so well either, but it's a strange addition: a thriller about a gay man-about-town who gets caught up in a Washington scandal. Carr Page (played, improbably, by Woody Harrelson) is a southern dandy of political heritage and a confidante of many of Washington's leading ladies. One of them is a senator's wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) who's sleeping with a lobbyist. Stopping by his place one day for some afternoon delight, she discovers he's dead. It's a murder mystery that could destroy her marriage and her husband's career, so Carr decides to help her cover it up.
Cover-ups, even innocent ones like this one, never go smoothly in the movies. But Schrader seems to be saying that this one would have come off just fine in, say, the Clinton years. "This is a rough crowd, this administration," Carr complains after being snarled at in an interrogation by a mean-spirited prosecutor named Mungo who embodies the twin (Republican) traits of cronyism and homophobia. Okay, so the Dems wouldn't have assigned a U.S. attorney named Mungo to the case. They probably wouldn't have had a guy named Mungo. But the law-enforcement types, are in one sense just doing their job, albeit uncreatively -- they sense that Carr's not telling all, and are understandably put off by his coyness and hoity-toity ways.
Carr's lawyer warns him: "Don't fuck with the Feds. After 9/11, they took the leash off." Much more aggressive than the FBI, though, is the Iraq War veteran hired by corrupt senators (led by a type-cast Ned Beatty) to handle any of the rough stuff that be might be required as they attempt to pull off a colossal (and poorly explained) fleecing of the American people. An Iraq subtext emerges when the heavy calls Carr's Arab-American boyfriend a "sand-nigger" while threatening to kill him. And because said boyfriend, who is a photographer, is busy creating politically-oriented art, large blow-ups of Abu Ghraib photos make their way into several scenes.
Pretty clunky stuff, if you ask me. But the film's attempt to comment on how the American flag has become a facile badge of patriotism comes across as outright hypocritical. At one point, Carr's lawyer has him affix a flag pin to his blazer just before a court appearance -- a nice touch. But in another scene, the film's two heroes, Carr and his boyfriend, drink coffee from stars-and-stripes mugs. Huh? It doesn't even go with the rest of their kitchenware.
Schrader, who penned Taxi Driver, has been writing and directing movies for awhile. In many ways, The Walker is simply a Washington-set remake of his 1980 film American Gigolo, which starred Richard Gere as a seducer-for-hire in L.A. (Both films feature a nearly identical scene in which the camera lingers on the main character's impressive collection of designer neckties.) The wan Bryan Ferry soundtrack, an odd choice for a movie set in the present, only reinforces that connection. Carr, when it comes to down it, is not a liberal hero for our times: even when the going gets tough, he remains attached to his impeccable manners. He complains that he comes from tobacco money and that his ancestors owned slaves. Come on, Carr, the gloves are off! Rather than a well-dressed martyr disgusted by the general uncouthness in Washington, why can't we have an updated version of the '70s hero? A guy who's eager to take on all the president's men.