When The Independent was announced Peacock was to be the home for an under-the-radar political thriller starring Succession’s Brian Cox, the incomparable Ann Dowd, burgeoning superstar actress Jodie Turner-Smith, and John Cena, the news received a lukewarm reaction. A political thriller released a mere week before the U.S. midterm elections is the equivalent of a Christmas film being released within a week of the capitalist holiday. Taking advantage of the current preoccupation with politics should have laid the foundation for a successful release, but with the film being announced only a week before its release, the lack of confidence in its quality is palpable.
The film follows Eli (Turner-Smith), a young idealistic journalist who uncovers a conspiracy involving a presidential candidate that could change the course of the election. The two viable candidates are America’s potential first female president, Patricia Turnbull (Dowd), and the independent candidate, Nate Sterling (Cena), who are bound to make history if elected. Still, Eli and her idol, legendary journalist Nick Booker (Cox), have the power to end one of the candidates’ careers. The journalists have the country’s fate in their hands.
While Peacock appears to have little faith in this project, the one thing the film has going for it is its potential to be something great, as there has not been a political thriller that has captured the attention of the masses since Netflix’s House of Cards. However, what torpedoes The Independent before it can take off is the lack of substantive world-building, distinct characters, or intelligent writing. There are stakes, and the potential for calamity is high, yet so much falls flat because the world around Eli and the candidates is scarcely built. The film lacks seriousness despite that being the only thing it attempts to be. Despite Ann Dowd and Brian Cox’s talents, little can be said of their characters other than they are played well by their actors. With so much of the film being dependent on Eli, neither the character nor her portrayer, Jodie Turner-Smith, are given room to develop beyond the ideas that make her up.
Director Amy Rice is familiar with films about politics — this is only her first narrative feature film after several years of being a documentarian. Her most notable credit is HBO’s By The People: The Election of Barack Obama. That said, one has to wonder why this fictional tale rooted in contemporary politics and its relationship to the media was such a draw for Rice when the reality is far more interesting, insidious, and not the least bit as contrived as Evan Parter’s script. Following the political landscape since Joe Biden’s inauguration to the midterm elections would have likely offered enough to warrant several documentaries, and even a series.
Ultimately, Parter’s script doesn’t hold as much weight as what it is trying to mirror. Eli’s story has her connecting a lottery conspiracy with school budget cuts, shady Super PACs and more of the usual forms of political corruption. To top it off, the political leaders and internal politics regarding journalism have far too many similarities to real life. In essence, The Independent exemplifies that fact is stranger than fiction, and is, by nature, more honest.
The Independent is not lacking in talent in front of or behind the camera. However, with years of great television and films that have captured the never-ending battle between the heroism of journalism and the ugly side of politics, The Independent doesn’t have solid enough writing or vision to rise to the heights of previous stories. At the heart of this plausible political thriller is a need for more insightful and incisive writing. The Independent often shows audiences what they already know about American politics, but it doesn’t tell one more.
The Independent began streaming on Peacock November 2. The film is 108 minutes long and is rated TV-MA.