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Yeltsin's campaign, U.S. style

March 12, 2004|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

There are a couple of unsolved problems in "Spinning Boris," a pretty good Showtime movie about Russia's 1996 presidential election and the three American "spin doctors" who were clandestinely hired to help the spectacularly low-polling Boris Yeltsin. Just how much these Pete Wilson campaign vets actually had to do with Yeltsin's eventual victory -- sorry to give away the ending -- remains debatable, the subject of ongoing claim and counterclaim. But in this version at least, Team USA is made to seem the secret savior of Russian democracy.

The first problem, which is inherent in docudrama, is that real life doesn't have the narrative shape of good fiction, however unlikely or thrilling it sometimes may be. Any dramatic film that purports to tell the true story of an actual event, is by definition hamstrung by having to (more or less) follow the facts, and not add things just because they're more interesting or, indeed, illuminating than what "really happened." While the premise of "Spinning Boris" suggests much -- Hitchcock could have taken it somewhere, as could the Marx Brothers -- its implications, moral and dramatic, are never really explored or expanded here. It doesn't quite have the courage of its cynicism.

The second problem is that it's hard to make heroes out of people whose job it is to warp reality in the service of a political agenda, however much the ends might justify the means. "We find out what voters want and we give it to them," says lead spinster George Gorton, played by Jeff Goldblum, and he says it like it's a good thing. (Gorton went on to manage the gubernatorial campaign of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and continues to advise him.) The film's big moment is when he finally convinces the Russians, wary of the "phony tricks" of American electioneering, to "go negative."

There is a passing suggestion that there might be another way than the American, but it feels more dutiful than heartfelt.

As in "Jurassic Park," Goldblum plays the slightly mad, visionary member of the team -- he lights up delightfully when he begins to explain "election gaming" or the uses of advance men. Anthony LaPaglia (as Dick Dresner) is the grumpy, wary, sarcastic one who wants out, and Liev Schreiber (as Joe Shumate) the calm one, who wants to see it out. That is about as much as there is to them. Though nominally Republicans, they have no overt politics; they're just in love with winning.

A progressive reformer who had weathered two coup attempts, Yeltsin -- who is seen here only in film clips, as the Americans never met him -- had become massively unpopular under the weight of the war in Chechnya; the rise of organized crime, unemployment and a growing, capitalist-style disparity between the rich and poor; and his own perceived incompetence. His strongest opponent, Communist Party main man Gennady Zyuganov, was running on a platform of golden-age nostalgia for the more predictable days when the state controlled property, culture and the press, and the Soviet Republics were one.

Russian business interests fielded Gorton and company, and for $250,000 plus expenses they came with their American expertise, their polls and "perception analyzer" to help keep the country safe for the free market. (In fact, the Russians were avid pollsters before the Americans arrived.) According to the film, they got the dry, dull Yeltsin to loosen up, got him out in public, shaking hands and kissing babies on the forehead ("For some reason foreheads test better than cheeks," says Shumate), courting the church and giving away land and planting trees. "Yankees say 'Plant a tree,' and -- bingo -- the ruler of the Russian empire plants a tree," says Gorton, pleased with himself.

Roger Spottiswoode, who directed the best Bond film in recent memory, "Tomorrow Never Dies" (1997), looks for action where he can. He makes moments out of molehills, but the movie consists mostly of meetings or of scenes of the Americans rattling around their huge hotel, nearly empty except for the staff (and an Elvis impersonator, who provides useful color). There are so few opportunities for quickening the pulse that an episode in which Gorton hurries through the streets of Moscow thinking that he might be killed -- you are allowed to think so, too -- is shown twice. As for sex, the flirty relationship the film suggests between Gorton and Tatiana Dyachenko (portrayed by Svetlana Efremova), Yeltsin's daughter and go-between, can go nowhere, and doesn't.

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