‘The Independent’ Review: Political Drama Plays More Like a Failed Pilot Than a Feature Film

Relativity/Peacock

The script for “The Independent,” a political thriller with a few key plot twists and turns, was on The Black List around 10 years ago as a screenplay that had not been produced but had gotten some favorable attention.

Since it is a very topical piece that revolves around a presidential election, screenwriter Evan Parter must have had to re-write it considerably to make it fit the current political landscape; his basic structure is fairly solid and his characters are well chosen, but all of his dialogue consists of the sort of hyperbolized declarations of plot exposition that only gets by on guilty-pleasure TV shows.

The first scenes of “The Independent” drop us into the middle of a drama involving third-party presidential candidate Nate Sterling (John Cena), and we are expected to take in a large amount of information in a very short period of time. This opening sequence is so awkward that it feels like the climax of the movie has been unwisely moved to the beginning — and this does turn out to be the case, because we arrive back at this scene about an hour and a half later, when it finally makes far more sense.

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There is a flashback to the real beginning of the narrative at a failing newspaper called The Washington Chronicle, which has been bought by an owner who wants clickbait rather than the sort of investigative reporting that has made the name of star columnist Nick Booker (Brian Cox). At a meeting for story ideas, up-and-comer Elisha (Jodie Turner-Smith) tries to get a story about public-school funding past the boss, and she eventually realizes that her story has very large political implications.

Booker takes Elisha under his wing and brings her to The Monocle, a real Washington D.C. power-player restaurant where they brush shoulders with Republican presidential nominee Patricia Turnbull (Ann Dowd). When Elisha meets with Turnbull and asks for her thoughts on the upstart third-party nominee, Dowd’s Turnbull replies, “Off the record, Mr. Sterling is swimming with sharks, and he can’t afford a cage!”

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Many of the actors in “The Independent” struggle to make would-be colorful dialogue like this sound somewhat believable, and only Cox manages to breeze through it without any trouble. Cox’s line delivery is so florid that he sometimes sounds like John Huston, and when he roars in anger it is clear that he graduated with honors from the Laurence Olivier School of Roaring. The cadence of his voice is so authoritative and pointed that often the sound of the words he is saying is more important than the sense, and that’s all to the good with the words he has been given here.

“The Independent” sets up a narrative of what the presidential election of 2024 might look like, and there are specific references to our recent past, but the Democratic nominee is not Joe Biden, and we get to see the fictional male Democratic nominee in this movie only briefly in a debate between the three candidates. About an hour into “The Independent,” there is a plot twist involving the nominees that isn’t all that surprising, but it makes for more drama as the movie wends its way to its sanctimonious and not-too-believable conclusion.

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Tucked away in “The Independent” is a smaller family drama in which Elisha deals with her parents and the illness of her father. These scenes are far better than anything else in the film because Turner-Smith gets to play something realistic rather than over-the-top and plot-driven; they also give the movie a little bit of heart, which it desperately needs. There is a scene where Elisha speaks to both of her parents in which director Amy Rice (“Broadway Rising”) cuts to a few silent close-ups of Elisha’s mother, who is played by Kecia Lewis (“The Blacklist”), and Lewis conveys a whole lifetime of love, warmth, pain and stoicism in these close-ups.

This is the best scene in the movie because it is not tied to plot, and it does not depend on the kind of gaudy plot-driven dialogue that consigns “The Independent” to the realm of failed TV pilots rather than exciting feature-film political thrillers.

“The Independent” premieres Nov. 2 on Peacock.