House of Cards finds Kevin Spacey being waspish, supercilious, and meanly clever — in other words, just the way we like him, and the way he’s been most effective in movies such as Swimming with Sharks, L.A. Confidential, The Usual Suspects, and (in a glorious early-career TV role) as Mel Profitt in Wiseguy. In House of Cards, he’s House Majority Whip Frank Underwood, passed over for Secretary of State and out for payback.
Working with director David Fincher, Spacey pulls off — triumphs at — the series’ riskiest stylistic tic: At regular points in the action, Spacey’s Frank pauses to turn to the camera and address us directly. He may be offering sly commentary on what we are about to or have just seen; he may provide a tart judgment on the state of politics. The gesture could have been hopelessly showy or rapidly tiresome; instead, it seems to energize scenes that are already pretty damn zippy.
I should say that all 13 episodes are available as of today but that I’m basing this review on the first two that Netflix made available to critics. You can bet I’ll be consuming the rest as soon as I can. This production is based on the 1990 British miniseries of the same name. In that one, Ian Richardson, as a vindictive pol who aspires to be Prime Minister, also delivered monologues to the camera. Richardson was artfully arch, but Spacey’s approach differs: He lets the lower part of his face go hangdog, even slack — the better to surprise you when his jaws deliver his toothsome lines with a snap. Spacey’s eyes are often dead, almost glazed; it’s part of Frank’s disguise as a good government team-player to seem open to all possibilities, when in fact he is relentlessly pursuing his revenge agenda.
Robin Wright co-stars as Frank’s coldly ambitious wife (her excellent scenes with Spacey suggest what the Kelsey Grammer series Boss should have been but never quite achieved), and Kate Mara is Zoe Barnes, a young woman who in another media era we’d have called a cub reporter. Here, she’s a barely tested journalist burning to gather scoops and launch a blog on her newspaper’s website that will vault her into immediate stardom. To do this, she’s clever enough to align herself with Frank, to offer to be his media leak in return for exclusive info. She’s also some combination of cynical and dim, enough so that she wears push-up bras and offers herself up as a sexual object to clinch her deals. I say “dim” only in the sense that this behavior would seem not to bode well for long-term journalistic credibility, but maybe that’s just the old-media man in me talking. You know what? Forget I mentioned it…
Fincher’s stamp is all over this production, the way (as he did in feature films such as Zodiac, Fight Club, and Seven) his camera conveys a sense of firm gravity even as it glides smoothly across a scene, an all-seeing, all-knowing instrument of knowledge and drama.
Will you be watching House of Cards on Netflix, and if so, do you want to watch a whole batch in a row, or parcel them out for more conventional TV viewing?