Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker magazine, American Cinematographer and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.
As wish-fulfillment fantasies go, the one at the center of Designated Survivor is both a little macabre and undeniably appealing. The series opens with a terrorist attack during a State of the Union address that wipes out the President and all of Congress, leaving the smart, principled Secretary of Housing and Urban Development – the “designated survivor” of the show’s title – to run the country. Now, obviously I am not in any way advocating for the violent death of anyone involved in our political leadership, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find Designated Survivor’s notion of rebuilding the government from scratch deliciously cathartic. Given this moment in our history, when representatives are willing to waste time on the Senate floor holding up snowballs to deny climate change and our Republican presidential candidate has turned the electoral process into a VH1 reality series (kind of like Rock of Love, but less tasteful), one can hardly blame me or anyone else for embracing Designated Survivor’s vision of a Capitol Building both literally and metaphorically in flames.
Designated Survivor’s greatness, though, lies not in its destructive vision but in its aspirational and inspirational qualities – in its own unassuming way, the series is the closest any modern filmmaker has come to replicating the best work of Frank Capra in the late 1930s. Designated Survivor is the creation of David Guggenheim, who previously wrote the Denzel Washington-Ryan Reynolds thriller Safe House. That movie was a taut, kinetic action film that got a lot of mileage out of the tension between its two lead characters’ differing worldviews, contrasting Reynolds’ idealism with Washington’s manipulative cynicism. A similar conflict emerges in Designated Survivor, but it’s more complex and spread among a greater number of characters; the extended running time and ensemble format of episodic television allows Guggenheim to adopt a less binary approach here than in Safe House, exploring not just the opposite ends of the idealism-cynicism spectrum but all the gradations between.
When HUD Secretary Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) ascends to the presidency, he immediately finds himself at the center of warring agendas and perspectives; from his staff to the military leadership to his own family, everyone embodies a slightly different point of view on how he should lead. There’s a terrific scene early on in the series in which Kirkman is beset upon from all sides by people barking questions and information at him; it’s chaos, yet one of Designated Survivor’s strengths is its smooth sense of clarity – Guggenheim’s achievement as a writer is to convey the complexity and noise of Kirkman’s situation in a manner that is simple, direct, and clean. This gets at the heart of what makes Designated Survivor work, and that’s its unabashed celebration of supreme professionalism – both the hero’s professionalism and that of the filmmakers themselves. Ultimately, Designated Survivor is about something that doesn’t seem all that dramatic on the surface – it’s basically a show about a guy making decisions – but it works because Guggenheim, Sutherland, and their collaborators tap into the intense desire for order and competence that we all have, particularly at this point in American political history.
Essentially, the appeal of Designated Survivor is similar to that of Clint Eastwood’s Sully; like that film, it’s a portrait of true grace and skill under pressure, an ode to intelligence and rational thinking. And like Sully, Designated Survivor provides its greatest satisfactions in the form of scenes where that intelligence and rational thinking win out over ignorance and ineptitude – in both works, the protagonists are surrounded by idiots who push against them at every turn, but overall everything works out on the side of logic, reason and expertise. Although Kirkman seems consistently anguished by the difficulties of his job, he rarely even comes close to making the wrong decision – he handles every crisis that comes his way perfectly, and there’s something deeply pleasurable and comforting about this given even the faint prospect of a Donald J. Trump presidency. Ironically, in a way Designated Survivor exploits the same philosophy peddled by Trump, the idea that if all the “establishment” politicians would just get out of the way, one bold man could change everything for the better. Herein lies the cleverness of Designated Survivor’s fantasy: it taps into the desire for “authenticity” that fuels many of Trump’s followers, but via a character whose politics and temperament are closer to Hillary Clinton’s. Kirkman is a finely tuned, perfectly constructed character designed for maximum appeal; he’s like Clinton without the compromises and calculations, or Trump with manners and a brain.
Yet the character never feels schematic or phony or like a concession to the lowest common denominator – he comes across as far less a writer’s creation than most real politicians do. This is largely due to Sutherland’s career-best work as Kirkman, just months after turning in an equally strong – and very, very different – performance in Jon Cassar’s exquisite Western Forsaken. To study the two performances side by side is to appreciate just how layered and subtle Sutherland’s work is; even when playing the same basic emotions in both films, he works from the inside out, finding totally different modes of expression. In both Forsaken and Designated Survivor, Sutherland is called upon to convey the weight of difficult moral decisions, but the way in which he registers the internal torment shifts drastically from one character (and one set of historical and political circumstances) to the other. Yet in each case Sutherland is so pitch-perfect that he seems to be playing himself – a compliment that can easily be applied to his most iconic role, that of Jack Bauer on 24. Watching Forsaken earlier this year and discovering Designated Survivor this fall made me realize how much I’ve undervalued Sutherland in the past, and I don’t think I’m alone. For all his success, he remains underrated, for the simple reason that he’s so good at what he does that he makes it look easy; it’s the same reason one can sometimes underestimate great movie stars like John Wayne or Cary Grant.
Sutherland’s invisible professionalism extends to every department on the show, which is one of the best directed and photographed series on television. The pilot is helmed by Paul McGuigan, who establishes a formal, classical approach that stands in welcome contrast to the “dirty,” handheld look favored by a lot of network dramas and procedurals these days. As he did on the underrated and criminally overlooked series The Family, McGuigan uses space and camera movement expressively without succumbing to self-consciousness – his framing is precise without ever feeling overly labored or show-offy, and his blocking beautifully underlines and comments upon the shifting power among the characters. He’s a master when it comes to manipulating point-of-view without actually resorting to traditional POV shots, though when he does employ subjective camera angles – as in the electrifying moment when Kirkman first learns that he is the new President – he does so in a way that would make Hitchcock proud.
Speaking of Hitchcock, Designated Survivor also has a terrific Saul Bass-esque opening title design that sets the tone right off the bat: although it’s timely, this is not a show that’s a slave to trends or fashion – it’s confidently classic. The echoes of Capra come not just in the show’s delicate balance between political fantasy and political reality, but in its fully realized style; while most TV shows either wear their pretensions on their sleeve, or seem simple because they are simple (simple-minded, that is), Designated Survivor is a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for the modern age, an expression of profound, deeply held longings and beliefs packaged as accessible, beautiful entertainment.