Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: Nicholas Cage is “The Runner” (2015)

the runner

This article’s title comes from a quote by Rahm Emanuel.

In The Runner, our man Nicolas Cage returns to his favored stomping ground of New Orleans as state representative Colin Price, an alcoholic, philandering local pol caught like a crawfish in a trap by a genuine mephistopheles moment in the wake of the BP oil spill.

Price has a history of fighting for the regular people of his district, the shrimpers and scrimpers of the Louisiana lowlands, the bayou folk. And after shedding tears in an impassioned speech about holding BP accountable, it looks like he’s nailed the Kodak moment that will take him to Washington in the coming senate race.  But a viral video of him getting all PG-13 with a fisherman’s wife in a motel elevator is cramping Price’s style.  Will Price fade back into the busy tableau of the French Quarter, seek refuge in the arms of anonymous prostitutes, drown himself in jazz and bourbon?  Or will he get back on his horse and ride for higher ground, without regard for those he must trample underfoot to get there?

A commonplace throughout the film is that Colin Price is a decent man.  His attorney wife Deborah keeps telling him this. You’d think she’d want to be done with him after his extramarital adventures, but that’s not the case.  In a great exchange, Colin says to Deborah, “This isn’t just about our careers.” She responds, “I wish that were true.” Deborah wants him to accept the backing of fund manager and BP stakeholder, dapper and calculating Mark Lavin (you may recognize him as Sterling Cooper’s closeted graphic designer Sal Romano from Mad Men) . For that support, Colin must reverse his position on ending Gulf drilling and embrace the oil industry’s job-creation rhetoric. Also, he must drop his nonprofit’s work on filing local claims for aid from BP.

Deborah produces a second quote that encapsulates the thrust of the film’s third act:

“You’ve always been a decent man, Colin, but that’s not why I married you. I married you because I knew you had it in you to become a great man.  And great men, men who build legacies, they aren’t always decent. They understand that people, they need someone to tell them what to remember and what to forget. They need great men to insulate them from frailty: what’s good, what’s bad.  Because only great men know how to make people’s powerlessness tolerable.”

That quote speaks for itself.  I would only add that the film’s middle act drags precisely because Colin Price is a pseudo-decent man, and he struggles long and hard with his demons, both metaphorical and worldly.  After watching thrillingly Machiavellian tours-de-force like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and House of Cards, I doubt if a contemporary audience has much patience for something as quaint as an alcohol-soaked crisis of conscience. We’ve been trained to want to see things happen, even if those things are horrific.  Moral him-hawing just gets in the way.  

There are certain parallels between House of Cards’ Senator Frank Underwood and Representative Colin Price.  They are both southerners, democrats, and runners.  They both have a predilection for bourbon and they’re both married to women who are more ambitious and proficient in the art of power than they are.

So much for the film as political statement.  As for my opinion of the film qua film, they had me at ‘Nicolas Cage.’ Toss in bit performances by Peter Fonda as Price’s terminally alcoholic father and former civil-rights mayor of New Orleans, and The Wire’s Bunk Moreland as Colin’s savvy campaign manager, and you’ve got yourself something more delectable than Picnic Crawdad Corn Cob Stew cooked in an old oil barrel.

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