American-style political campaigning meets former-Soviet subterfuge in “Spinning Boris,” based on the true story of a trio of elite U.S. consultants hired by Russian businessmen to steer President Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 bid for re-election. Depicting the Americans as smart, savvy and smoothly manipulative and the Russians as corrupt, secretive, obtuse, drunk or all the above, the film seems a little slanted. But the sharp script and direction and highly capable cast make this an amusing political satire and a class entry for Showtime and other cablers.
Central figure is vet political consultant George Gorton (Jeff Goldblum), who most recently had a hand in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California gubernatorial campaign. Here Gorton and his partners Dick Dresner (Anthony LaPaglia) and Joe Shumate (Liev Schreiber) receive a call asking for their involvement in Russia’s first free election in more than 1,000 years.
Their daunting task: to resurrect Yeltsin from rock-bottom approval ratings caused by poor health, crippling economic reforms, runaway inflation and rampant organized crime. With a 63% expected voter turnout, unlimited campaign funds and a quarter of a million dollars in fees plus expenses, Shumate encourages them to rise to the challenge of what he calls the “Mt. Everest of consulting.”
Arriving in the infant democracy four months before the election, Gorton and Co. are taken by shady businessman Felix Braynin (Boris Krutonog) to meet the money behind the campaign, Andrei Lugov (Gregory Hlady), a Russian mob kingpin. The latter unnerves the Americans by insisting on meeting in a steam bath and attempting to set them up with hookers. From there, the trio is taken to an austere high security hotel but their requests to meet with their client are met with vague answers at best.
The Americans learn that any direct contact with Yeltsin might make the leader appear a tool of the West and constitute a blow to Russian pride. Instead, the consultants are forced to work exclusively with the president’s daughter Tatiana (Svetlana Efremova). A cool customer who reveals little, Tatiana slowly comes around one by one to the Americans’ strategies, from polling and focus groups to a more personable TV campaign, public appearances and lastly, attacking the Communist opposition and instilling fear of civil unrest into the nation.
Providing plenty of fascinating insight into both American and Russian politics, the script by husband-and-wife writing team Yuri Zeltser and Cary Bickley ably constructs a suspenseful chain of events as the real machinations driving Yeltsin’s supposed backers are revealed, posing a threat to the Americans’ safety. However, while their fate seems to be in peril whichever way the election goes, the conclusion drops the ball on this aspect, undermining the thriller element and making the ending a little weak.
The film is far more effective in lighter mode, taking a dryly ironic view of the absurdity of such an improbable meeting between two vastly different, incompatible approaches both to campaigning and to politics itself.
Primary force keeping the humor subtly to the fore here is Goldblum, playing the kind of smooth-talking, oily schmoozer he does best. Scenes in which George vigorously works his charms on Tatiana, who responds with just a flicker of susceptibility, are enormously enjoyable. But while Goldblum’s results at the gym are indeed impressive, the character’s surfeit of gratuitous shirtless scenes becomes something of a joke.
LaPaglia and Schreiber largely play straight men to Goldblum’s supremely self-assured showman. However, both contribute complementary characterizations — Dresner comes across as a blunt, cut-to-the-chase guy, while Shumate is more measured and purposeful — that give the three actors’ many scenes together terrific energy. The trio for the most part is shot wide in a classical style with all three actors in the frame at once, which adds to the pleasure.
Director Roger Spottiswoode guides the action along at a lively pace, maintaining a light, entertaining tone by no means automatic for this kind of material, stuffed with dialogue, political detail and news footage from the period. Showtime pic won the audience award for most popular narrative feature at the Hamptons fest, where it received its U.S. premiere.