Director David Fincher has long been a tastemaker when it comes to commercial American media. His two pilot episodes for Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS, released in 2013, are simply the latest in a long string of works that have influenced how movies are made, how commercials are engineered, and how music videos have evolved. Due to HOUSE OF CARDS’ runaway success, he has played a crucial part in making the all-episodes-at-once model the indisputable future of serialized entertainment and reinforcing the notion that we’re living in a new golden age of television.
HOUSE OF CARDS had originally been a successful television series in the United Kingdom, so of course it had to be re-adapted for American audiences, who presumably have no patience for British parliamentary politics. On principle, I think this is a terrible practice that discourages us from learning about other cultures based off the assumption that we’re too lazy to read subtitles. But like Fincher’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011) before it, once in a while the practice can create an inspired new spin on existing work that distinctly enhances its legacy within the collective consciousness.
HOUSE OF CARDS’ origins stretch back to 2008, when Fincher’s agent approached the director with the idea while he was finishing up THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. Fincher was interested in the idea, and enlisted hisBENJAMIN BUTTON writer Eric Roth to help him executive produce and develop the series. After shopping it around to various cable networks around town, they found an unexpected home in streaming movie delivery service Netflix, who was in the first stages of building a block of original programming in order to compete with the likes of HBO and Showtime while bolstering their customer base. Along with LILYHAMMER and the revived ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, HOUSE OF CARDS formed part of the first wave of this original programming, which took advantage of Netflix customers’ binge-watching habits by releasing all episodes at once instead of parsing them out over the space of several weeks. It was (and still is) a groundbreaking way to consume television, and despite the naysayers, the strategy worked brilliantly.
Funnily enough, the reunion between Fincher and SE7EN (1995) star Kevin Spacey didn’t occur out of their natural friendship, but because Netflix found in its performance statistics a substantial overlap between customers who had an affinity for Fincher and Spacey, respectively. As such, executives at Netflix were able to deduce and mathematically reinforce the conclusion that another collaboration between both men would generate their biggest audience. This also gave them the confidence to commit to two full seasons from the outset instead of adhering to traditional television’s tired-and-true practice of producing a pilot before ordering a full series. Admittedly, the use of metrics and numbers instead of gut instinct might be a cynical way to approach programming, but in HOUSE OF CARDS’ case, the idea really paid off. Under Fincher’s expert guidance, Spacey has delivered the best performance of his career and HOUSE OF CARDS has emerged as one of the best serialized dramas around, rivaling the likes of such heavyweights as MAD MEN, THE WIRE, and BREAKING BAD.
Fincher directed the first two episodes in the series, which takes place during the inauguration of fictional President Garrett Walker. Walker wouldn’t even be taking the oath of office if it weren’t for the substantial canvassing done by House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in exchange for the coveted position of Secretary of State. After taking office, however, Walker has a change of heart and reneges on his promise. Underwood shows grace and discipline in accepting the President Elect’s decision, but immediately begins scheming how to manipulate his way to the top. He’s simultaneously challenged and reinforced by his wife Claire (Robin Wright), the CEO of a prominent nonprofit and a strong-willed leader in her own right.
On the President’s first day in office, Underwood targets the new nominee for Secretary of State, Michael Kern, via an education reform bill— which is revealed to be radically left-leaning and unacceptable to the public’s interests. Underwood leaks the bill to the press through Washington Herald reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), whose story on the matter lands on the Herald’s front page and prompts the education reform chairman to step aside and designate Frank himself to head up the authorship of a new bill. It isn’t long until Underwood manages to unseat Kern by exploiting his handicaps via hardline questions from the press, subsequently installing a pawn of his own as the new candidate. Over the course of the first season, Underwood’s machinations and orchestrations will whisk him up into the upper echelons of power and within a heartbeat of the highest office in the land.
Kevin Spacey has always been a well-respected actor, but his performance as Frank Underwood reminds us of his unparalleled level of talent. Underwood is an unconventional narrator, straddling a line between an omniscient and personal point of view. A southern gentleman from South Carolina first, a Democrat second, and currently the House Majority Whip (a temporary position, to be sure), Underwood is a ruthlessly calculating and manipulative politician—but at the same time he’s endlessly charismatic and armed with an endless supply of euphemisms and folksy proverbs. Although Spacey and Fincher haven’t worked together on this close a scale since 1995, it seems they’re able to slip right into the proceedings with a great degree of confidence and comfort.
Robin Wright, also on her second collaboration with Fincher after THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, plays Underwood’s wife, Claire. Every bit as strong and calculating as her husband, the character of Claire adds a distinctly Shakespearean air to the story by channeling the insidiously supportive archetype of Lady Macbeth. The CEO of a successful nonprofit firm, Claire pulls her weight around the Underwood household and becomes Frank’s rock during difficult times. Wright does a great job of making Claire inherently likeable and relatable, despite her outwardly cold characterization.
With HOUSE OF CARDS, the Mara family has established something of a dynasty in their collaborations with Fincher. After Rooney’s career-making performances in THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, older sister Kate proves every bit her equal as Zoe Barnes, a wet-around-the-ears journalist for the Washington Herald. Plucky, street smart and ambitious, Barnes is able to use her intelligence as a tool of empowerment just as well as her sex.
Corey Stoll and Mahershala Ali, as Peter Russo and Remy Denton respectively, prove to be revelations that stick out amidst the clutter of Fincher’s supporting cast. Stoll’s Russo is a politician from East Pennsylvania who has problems with alcohol and drug abuse. He’s severely disorganized and impulsive, despite his promising intelligence and ambition. Ali’s Denton is almost the exact opposite—super focused, disciplined, and exceedingly principled. Denton is a high-powered lawyer who serves as a great foil to Underwood’s scheming. Ali’s performance also benefits due having worked with Fincher on THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON.
Like all of Fincher’s late-career work, HOUSE OF CARDS is shot entirely digitally, taking advantage of the Red Epic’s pure, clean image to convey the series’ sterile, almost-surgical tone. Instead of hiring a cinematographer he’s worked with before, Fincher enlists the eye of Eigil Bryld, who ably replicates the director’s signature aesthetic. The cold, steely color palette has been desaturated to a pallid monotone in its treatment of blues, teals, and greys. Warm tones, like practical lights that serve to create a soft, cavernous luminance in interior chambers, are dialed into the yellow side of the color spectrum. The aesthetic deviates from Fincher’s style, however, in opting for a much shallower focus—even in wide shots. Curiously, the aspect ratio seems to be fluid from format to format. When streamed on Netflix, HOUSE OF CARDS is presented in 1.85:1, but watching it on Blu Ray, the image appears to be cropped to Fincher’s preferred 2.40:1 aspect ratio, making for an inherently more-cinematic experience.
HOUSE OF CARDS plays like an old-school potboiler/espionage thriller, featuring shadowy compositions and strategic placement of subjects in his frame that are reminiscent of classic cloak-and-dagger cinema. The camera work is sedate, employing subtle dolly work when need be. The effect is a patient, plodding pace that echoes Underwood’s unrelenting focus and forward-driven ambition. Perhaps the most effective visual motif is the inspired breaking of the fourth wall, when Spacey pulls out of the scene at hand to monologue directly to camera (which makes the audience complicit in his nefarious plot). Spacey delivers these sidebar moments with a deliciously dry wit, enriching what might otherwise be a stale story of everyday politics and injecting it with the weight of Shakespearean drama. The foundation of this technique can be seen in 1999’s FIGHT CLUB, where Fincher had Edward Norton address the audience directly in a few select sequences. HOUSE OF CARDS fully commits to this idea, doing away with conventional voiceover entirely. While it’s been used in endless parodies since the series’ release, the very fact that the technique is commonly joked about points to its fundamental power.
Another visual conceit that has been copied by other pop culture works like NONSTOP (2014) is the superimposition of text message conversations over the action, rather than cutting to an insert shot of the message displayed on the cell phone’s screen. Considering that characters have been texting each other in movies for almost ten years now, I’m frankly surprised it took us this long for the on-screen subtitle conceit to enter into the common cinematic language. It’s an inspired way to dramatize pedestrian, everyday exchanges that act as the modern-day equivalent of coded messages in cloak-and-dagger stories.
Behind the camera, Fincher retains most of his regular department heads save for one new face. Donald Graham Burt returns as Production Designer, creating authentic replicas of the hallowed halls and chambers of Washington DC. Kirk Baxter, who normally edits Fincher’s features with Angus Wall, goes solo in HOUSE OF CARDS and weaves everything together in a minimalist, yet effective fashion. The ever-dependable Ren Klyce returns as Sound Designer, giving an overly-talkie drama some much-needed sonic embellishment. The only new face in the mix is Jeff Beal, who composes the series’ music. Beal’s theme for HOUSE OF CARDS is instantly iconic, fueled by an electronic pulse that bolsters traditional orchestral strings and horns— echoing the romantic statues of fallen heroes that dot the DC landscape with a patriotic, mournful sound. The series doesn’t rely on much in the way of needledrops, so Fincher’s inclusion of two pre-recorded tracks is worth noting. The first episode features an inaugural ball where we hear Dmiti Shostakovich’s “Second Waltz”, which cinephiles should recognize as the main theme to Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT (1999). Additionally, the second episode features Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” when Russo goes to visit a conspiracy theorist in rural Massachusetts. While not exactly the most original choice of music, it’s appropriate enough.
For visionary directors like Fincher, television is tough because of the need to work within a strictly defined set of aesthetic boundaries. While this is changing and becoming a better stage for visually dynamic work every day, the basic rule of thumb is to direct the pilot in order to set the style in place and make the entire series conform around it. In that regard, HOUSE OF CARDS as a series absolutely oozes Fincher’s influence, despite 24 of the (to-date) 26 episodes being helmed by different directors. This phenomenon can be ascribed to the fact that Fincher’s episodes dovetail quite nicely with several themes and imagery he’s built his career on exploring. Take the opening titles for instance—while they are usually part and parcel with the conventional television experience, Fincher makes them his own by showing time-lapse footage of Washington DC locales, suggesting the bustling scope of his stage while further exploring the passage of time as a thematic idea— also seen in earlier work like ZODIAC (2007) or THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. This theme is also reflected in Fincher’s depiction of DC’s iconic architecture. Like he did in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, his compositions and location selections when taken as a whole suggest a clash between the old Washington and the new. Old DC, marked by classical, colonial structures like The White House and The Lincoln Memorial, face off against the growing tide of steel and glass towers, or the modern infrastructural design of subway stations. A key takeaway of HOUSE OF CARDS is that Washington DC, a city defined by its romantic memorials to the past, is increasingly modernizing into a world city of the future.
This transition is aided by mankind’s increasing dependence on— and complicated relationship with—technology; another core idea that Fincher has grappled with throughout his career. HOUSE OF CARDS’ focusing prism is communication: cell phones, text messages, the Internet, Apple computers, CNN, etc. The series goes to great lengths to depict how information is disseminated in the digital age, with government and the media forming a complex, symbiotic relationship.
In asking the audience to root for, essentially, the bad guy, HOUSE OF CARDS echoes the strong undercurrent of nihilism that marks Fincher’s stories. Underwood is less of a protagonist than he is an antihero. Objectively, he’s a bad person who’s scheming to outright steal the Presidency to rule the world as he sees fit. In real life, we’d react to this sort of notion with outrage—just ask anyone who’s ever irrationally obsessed over a particular birth certificate of a certain standing President. However, we can’t help but root for Underwood to succeed, simply because he’s just so damn attractive and charismatic (on top of actually being, you know, a fully-fleshed out, relatable person with moral shades of grey and not a stock villain archetype).
HOUSE OF CARDS’ groundbreaking release was met with quite the warm reception. It was nominated for several Emmys (a big deal for a series that hadn’t been broadcast first on television), and launched Netflix into HBO’s orbit in terms of compelling original content. For Fincher as a director, HOUSE OF CARDS served as a great comeback after the disappointment of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. The series, whose third season is scheduled to premiere in February 2015, is a confident, near-flawless exploration of man’s lust for power and our complicated governmental structure—and wouldn’t be nearly as successful without Fincher’s guiding hand. My one regret with HOUSE OF CARDS is that he didn’t direct more episodes.
HOUSE OF CARDS is currently available via streaming Netflix.
Produced by: Karyn McCarthy, Keith Huff
Written by: Beau Willimon
Director of Photography: Eigil Bryld
Production Designer: Donald Graham Burt
Edited by: Kirk Baxter
Music by: Jeff Beal
Sound design by: Ren Klyce