In this election year, television needs a good, tough political satire, and Running Mates is it… almost. Certainly this made-for-TV movie features the season’s most convincing candidate: Ed Harris, who played astronaut (and later politician) John Glenn so uncannily in the 1983 film The Right Stuff, here portrays Hugh Hathaway, a U.S. senator whose bleeding-heart liberalism is amusingly bloodless. A typical line from Hathaway’s stump speeches: ”We’re mounting a campaign the main thrust of which is to get this country back on top and moving again.”
”That sounds like the missionary position,” remarks Aggie Snow, one of Hathaway’s more skeptical constituents and the object of his ardent affections. As played by Diane Keaton in her first TV-movie appearance, Aggie is Annie Hall with a subscription to The Nation — a little flighty and very sincere, a middle-class left-winger who’s always chiding Hugh for his centrist positions, ”so cautious and compromised.”
Running Mates, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg (Brideshead Revisited), tries to be a Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn romantic comedy for the ’90s, and early on it succeeds. Aggie is a successful children’s-book author on the rebound from a bad affair. She shares her house with her brother, Chapman (St. Elsewhere’s Ed Begley Jr.), a legendary ’70s singer-songwriter whose laundry list of neuroses hasn’t permitted him to write a tune since the release of his debut album two decades ago. Begley turns in a fine comic cameo, staring balefully at his dusty guitar and shrewdly spoofing every California pop eccentric from Brian Wilson to Harry Nilsson.
Aggie literally bumps into candidate Hathaway in a restaurant during one of his campaign stops, and it’s love at first sight — or at his first sight, anyway; Aggie has to be convinced that this handsome glad-hander is more substantial than his political ”shape shifter” public image. Hugh proves himself charming and persistent, wooing her into marriage despite the fact that when he asks her whether she’d like to be First Lady, she says, ”I’d rather be coated in honey and hung beneath a beehive.”
These early scenes have a beguiling aimlessness — they capture the feelings of people made light-headed and distracted by new love. Both stars are terrific. Keaton looks great and gives nearly every line a wry twist, while Harris uses his wide grin and handsome-walnut face to convey Hugh’s earnestness. They make a dreamy couple.
Pretty soon, though, the plot kicks in: A creepy photographer (Twin Peaks‘ Russ Tamblyn) recognizes Aggie as the girl in a college movie he filmed in 1969. A lark made as an anti-Vietnam War protest, it featured Aggie, a cheerful coed in pasties, making love under the blanket of an American flag; her partner’s face covered by a Richard Nixon mask. Realizing the use to which Hugh’s opponents could put this sensational footage, the photographer first tries to blackmail Aggie and the candidate and then leaks it to the press. The rest of Running Mates concerns the pressures on Aggie and Hugh from the Hathaway campaign staff. His advisors’ spin control runs up against the couple’s implacable sense of outrage: They don’t think Aggie’s 20-year-old indiscretion is anyone else’s business, and Hugh resists condemning it.
With its sharp acting and timely political theme (the atmosphere of the Hathaway campaign will remind you of the early days of Bill Clinton’s), Running Mates could have been a swift, cutting movie. Instead, its script, by A.L. Appling, slows Running Mates to a crawl. Appling is a pseudonym for Carole Eastman (Five Easy Pieces, Man Trouble), and many of her lines are either stiff (”There is no one for me but you,” says Hugh) or archly clever. Hugh stuffs an olive into Aggie’s mouth and murmurs, ”These are imported from Italy — aren’t they incredibly succulent?” Sorry, but Hugh is far too much of a guy’s guy to say ”incredibly succulent” with a straight face. And Eastman is a sucker for a too-well-turned cliché, as when Aggie moans, ”Oh, how did I sink to such heights?”
Then too, the structure of Eastman’s story is off, spending too much time on Aggie’s controversy and not enough on its consequences. The screenplay builds to give Harris the opportunity to deliver a big dramatic speech, at which point Running Mates turns into an anti-media screed — all of Hugh’s passion is poured into boilerplate about how superficial, amoral, and corrupt reporters are for focusing on Aggie’s old movie.
Hugh’s ringing denouncement of media hypocrisy also turns out to be the moment when Running Mates ends. We don’t see what kind of political hay Hugh’s opponents make of Aggie’s scandal — in fact, where are Hugh’s presidential competitors? They’re barely mentioned. What happens to Hugh — do both his marriage and his campaign survive? Running Mates leaves you feeling slightly ripped off: It gets you involved with a couple of engaging characters, but it turns out that the movie isn’t as interested in them as you are. This is a film with an ax to grind, and it chops off our pleasure. B-