“There’s nothing worse than a politician without ambition.” So says the newly inaugurated president of Argentina in Santiago Mitre’s “The Summit.” It’s the kind of boilerplate dialogue you could hear in any broody portrait of politics and power, but it sounds particularly egregious coming from this one. Despite its larger festival platform and starrier cast, “The Summit” remains a wan, frustrating, and narratively unambitious follow-up to Mitre’s Critics Week prizewinner, “Paulina.”
With big-name actors and top-level access, Mitre’s third feature is an impressively scaled-up production. “The Summit” opens in the halls of the Casa Rosada, the sprawling presidential palace in the heart of Buenos Aires, and Mitre shot in the actual palace. As the steadicam rigs sweep from the back entrance to the kitchen to the gilded corridors of power, it introduces us to the characters who make the country run. First among equals is presidential advisor Luisa Cordero (Erica Rivas, the wrathful bride from “Wild Tales”), but the big man is conspicuously absent.
We’re only introduced to him after Cordero leads an all-hands staff meeting in the president’s mahogany office. Only then does “The Summit” cut to the impressive sight of… a 60-year-old man napping on a couch. Of course, he’s not just any 60-year-old man – he’s President Hernán Blanco (Ricardo Darín, also of “Wild Tales” and every other Argentinian film with a significant international release over the past decade). And it’s not just any old couch – it’s the built-in banquette on the president’s private plane, and we’re soaring high above the Andes. In that cannily constructed opening, Mitre quickly establishes both the power and scope of Argentina’s highest political office and the fact that said office is held by a regular dude.
If the revelation that “presidents are people, too” doesn’t set your world on fire, you’re not going to have an easy go of the remaining hour and 45 minutes, which find the unsure new leader having to juggle family and diplomacy while at his first international summit. Though that premise offers a number of avenues, Mitre and co-screenwriter Mariano Llinás never push further than that initial thought. Each interaction merely reiterates the premise.
“The Summit” moves along at fairly pleasant clip, despite a few teeth-grinding moments of strained exposition. (At one point, everyone sits quietly listening to talk radio as a pundit’s disembodied voice rattles off all the exposition we could ever want. Robert McKee will have nightmares.)
And yet, despite a few teeth-grinding moments of strained exposition, it often lets deft casting score the larger points. Darín makes perfect sense as president, as the ever-charming actor is able to leverage his mega-star status to underline the inherent pageantry of all major political gatherings. Familiar faces like Paulina García (of “Gloria”) and Daniel Giménez Cacho (“We Are What We Are” and “Get the Gringo”) give fine turns as the respective presidents of Chile and Mexico, and when the film needs a smooth operator for a third act centered on whether Blanco will sell out, “The Summit” trots out Christian Slater.
Slater is particular effective as a smarmy State Department bigwig (“We’re always the bad guys” is how he describes it) tasked with collecting Blanco’s soul. He only has one scene towards the end of the film, and he makes the most of it, needling and cajoling and doing his slick Christian Slater routine.
Though the film looks and sounds like a thriller, said thrills never manifest. DP Javier Julia’s moody lighting and composer Alberto Iglesias’ urgent score promise a more prurient story than Mitre and Llinás ever get around to telling. While there’s a whiff of sex, it’s the kind between two consenting partners in a forthright relationship. There’s political intrigue, and it’s what you’d expect from a bunch of politicians negotiating with each other.
If anything, “The Summit” is almost audacious in its lack of audacity. Avoiding the idealism of “The West Wing”, the buffoonery of “Veep,” or the fatalism of “House of Cards,” the film treats politics as a transactional enterprise performed by competent actors with differing interests and incentives. If the film just stayed in that register, it could totally work. Hell, that dispassionate perspective could make “The Summit” the reassuringly escapist film this madhouse political climate calls for.
Instead, it takes a bizarre 180 halfway through, shifting focus from the political to the personal and undercutting both. All at once the story becomes about Blanco’s relationship with his troubled adult daughter (“Paulina” star Dolores Fonzi), with long detours about hypnosis, false memories, and her unseen ex-husband. You could call it a meandering sideplot if not for the fact that it’s really the only plot for 45 minutes of the film. And then, to prove that none of these digressions matter, the film drops the subplot, never answering any of the questions or mentioning them again.
Those herky-jerky shifts from the political to the personal to the political again reveal that, at heart, “The Summit” is not really invested in any of it. I don’t know if it’s worse than a politician without ambition, but there’s something inherently dispiriting about a film with significant means and nothing to say.
“The Summit” is screening in Un Certain Regard at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.