Moving Pictures
Mar 20, 2023, 06:29AM

Quaint Running Mates

Outdated values and a political pop culture world eons away in 1992’s Running Mates.

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Quaint is hard to come by, especially in American politics—a concise, if un-artful, description of nearly every American political comedy/satire/drama/documentary from the JFK assassination through the election of Donald Trump. Fifty-three years of intrigue and “insight” never surpassed by Ned Beatty’s speech in Network about the “galactic power” of Arab oil. The political structure of the West hasn’t changed since Paddy Chayefsky’s masterpiece came out 46 years ago. Blue turns to red, epidemics, pandemics, and terrorist attacks kill hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom voted in elections, from red to blue. Any critique that doesn’t take Beatty’s speech as a given and go beyond it is an entertainment, a period piece, soft propaganda. Romantic comedies, perhaps the most innately political of all film genres, are as rigid and predictable as our world system. Just as one gold brick moves to another drawer in a bank beneath Manhattan, the star will find love in the end.

Running Mates, broadcast on HBO in early-October 1992, is only worth watching for its stars, Diane Keaton and Ed Harris, who animate an otherwise prefab script. She’s a novelist, he’s a senator, she’s unsatisfied, and he’s running for president. They went to high school together, and they run into each other in a diner a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses. She dodges him—an unrequited crush, her the ugly duckling—but he’s so genuine that they end up dating, then engaged. His aides are worried—it’s not that she’s politically incorrect, she just has a big mouth and no filter, a free woman. Harris isn’t, and he knows how much he’ll have to equivocate and compromise as a presidential candidate. As much as he loves Keaton, he’s not going to jeopardize a winning bid if she’s in the way.

And what the movie’s final third focuses on is the scandal: in 1969, Keaton made an experimental film with her conveniently deceased husband where they fuck, dance, and burn the American flag. Harris and his aides sit there like George C. Scott in Hardcore, until Harris, just like Scott, yells at the projectionist to “TURN IT OFF!” No nudity or anything criminal here, despite HBO’s stamp—this is a thoroughly PG TV movie. But how quaint for a presidential campaign to hinge on the experimental filmmaking of baby boomers high on LSD: they’re fucking, but so what? Wife and husband (who died in “the Bermuda Triangle,” an odd running joke in an otherwise paint-by-numbers script by Carole Eastman) are exercising their First Amendment Rights, as Harris reminds an irate press corps at the end when everything’s been exposed.

He stands by his fiancée. Coming just one cycle after Gary Hart’s infidelity ruined his chances, Running Mates is an interesting if tame curio from the same company that produced Robert Altman’s Tanner ’88. There is no subversion here, just a nice movie, a beautiful thing, and watching it today, knowing how quaint it was in 1992, is a delirious deluge of outdated values and expectations. One of those angry reporters asks Harris about the issue of “morality,” which even he grants is “significant.” None of the sexual or romantic politics between Keaton and Harris have moved an inch since then, but American politics broke the dam in 2016—Running Mates would never be made as a simple entertainment today, much less a romantic comedy. Besides the ridiculous idea that everything political has to be serious and “important,” no film would ever portray this courtship with such uncomplicated care.

Michael Lindsay-Hogg directs, of Let It Be and The Rolling Stones Rock ’n’ Roll Circus fame, and Ed Begley, Jr., usually good, is insufferable as Keaton’s untalented and neurotic brother. Thankfully he’s sidelined as soon as Harris is introduced, and although this isn’t the best movie, it’s the most vivid example I’ve seen of Harris’ underused abilities—he’s probably the most famous underrated American actor. He’s always great, and here I was reminded of his supporting performance in another Hollywood movie directed by a Brit: 1996’s Eye for an Eye, where his daughter is raped and murdered by Kiefer Sutherland, who gets off on a technicality. It’s Sally Field’s movie, but Harris has a line reading that I think about often, to the cops and doctors: “Just get this animal off the streets.” It’s the most real emotion in the whole thing, another genre programmer, albeit in a different direction (Sally Field in her own version of Death Wish).

How could a senator hit on a woman in a restaurant and ask her on a date in a 2023 romantic comedy? Power dynamics, age gap, ethics violations, etc. Nobody’s carving up little girls or flying out exotic drugs for secret ceremonies, this is just two people falling in love. And in 1992, unwilling or uninterested in critiquing the galactic power Ned Beatty screamed about in 1976, the press had to harp on something. Bill Clinton would soon give them plenty, but when Running Mates was made, clinical depression and infidelity were campaign killers, along with the refusal to admit you’d like to see your daughter’s killer executed. Running Mates is calm, a quaint film, before everything was so loud.

—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith


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