The Rahm identity shines through in 'Chicago Fire'

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune / October 5, 2012)

This is not a political story.

This is a story about acting and the thin line between a performance and a public face. This is about aesthetics. Please do not read any ideological argument into the following or take what I am about to say as cynicism or ascertain any latent snark. Conversely, this should not be read as a show of support.

I am without guile here, but is it me or does it ever strike you that Rahm Emanuel is a big-city mayor who looks like some part of him is also playing the role of a big-city mayor? As if, in a head-spinning, meta-reality twist, whenever the mayor steps before a camera he can't help but picture himself starring in a film about a mayor? You know, the way some people say they leave their bodies and watch themselves from the ceiling?

Next time you see him on TV, watch: He's the mayor, he's talking, not performing per se, not acting per se, standing rigid, serious. And then … there! An Oscar-night clip seems to flash subtly across his eyes. I admit: Long before the mayor was the mayor, I thought this, subconsciously reading into him a slight actorly self-awareness. But not until his cameo in "Chicago Fire" was I struck by the sheer theatricality of Rahm.

The Pacino-ness, if you will.

"Chicago Fire" premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on NBC. It's produced by Dick Wolf, who has a history with political cameos. Among his creations are "Law & Order," which has featured real mayors playing real mayors (Rudolph Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg) and real politicians who became fictional lawyers (Fred Thompson). Giuliani's brief scene came off uncharacteristically muted; Bloomberg got a juicier moment, demanding that murderers be brought to justice, but his "furious face" was overemphatic and unconvincing.

Rahm?

His cameo is less than 30 seconds long and consists of one faintly heard line ("How ya' doin'?"), but it is not boilerplate. He makes the most of his blink of screen time. He has gravitas, panache. (NBC released a slightly longer clip of the cameo last spring, soon after the scene was shot.) Four stars, Mr. Mayor!

But don't just listen to me. Consider these raves. Kevin MacGregor, the Chicago Fire Department's coordinator of special events (who stands opposite the mayor in the scene), was astonished: "He wasn't bad." Claire Simon, casting director for "Boss," the Chicago-based cable series about a Chicago mayor, was blown away: "Look, there's no way to tell how good an actor he is from a scene that short. But I did think, 'Oh, there's Mayor Emanuel.'"

Trust me, they were impressed.

Emanuel agreed to appear in the scene in exchange for NBC donating to the Chicago firefighters' retirees, widows and orphans assistance fund. Without giving away too much of the plot, his cameo (which happens in Wednesday's episode) unfolds like this: There's a warehouse fire. Water hoses throw long, looping streams toward the burning building, and every fire ladder stands tall, extended to full height. A very cinematic flames-licking-the-Chicago-night kind of moment. A group of sweaty and exhausted firefighters are talking, and then one raises his head and says, "Looks like we're going to meet the mayor after all." Cut to an Escalade and Emanuel, who doesn't climb from the back door so much as hit the ground walking.

Think Batman.

Think Clooney.

He struts, topcoat fluttering, revealing no outward emotion. He moves quickly, seeming not to expend any energy. The camera glides back and encompasses the men as the mayor asks a firefighter how he's doing. The mayor grabs the man's arm in assurance. The music swells, and though it drowns out what the men are saying, the mayor's familiar grim mask of concern is all business, smooth and unfailingly confident. Quite Clooney, in fact.

"I remember thinking he was like a natural," MacGregor told me. "They talked me into being in the scene right before we did it, and I don't think we talked about what we were doing more than a minute, but the mayor was comfortable. It was like he was at a real emergency, the real thing, nothing unusual."

Exactly.

Actors make good politicians because, well, pick your reason: They know how to connect, speak before people, wield a cult of personalty, etc. But as much as we assume the reverse is always true, that every politician is an actor, when politicians draw on their gravitas and act in a film or TV series, they often stand out badly. Rather than lend authenticity to a moment, they become the unconvincing nonactors, bringing more attention to their "legitimacy" than their legitimacy.

Not Rahm. His "Chicago Fire" appearance is weirdly, seamlessly in sync with TV news footage of him at a podium, addressing the City Council or just talking on camera to George Stephanopoulos at the Democratic National Convention.

TV reporter Paris Schutz, who covers the mayor's office for "Chicago Tonight" on WTTW, said, after watching the NBC clip: "You're right, it's interesting because he's a guy who likes to have his face out ahead of a story, and watching him at this fire, talking to the firefighters in the show and congratulating them, showing them he's the guy in charge, it's consistent with him in real life. He also looks impatient, and there's a hint of him making an effort to mask that impatience. I don't really see a difference, to be honest."

Indeed, it's nothing less than cinematic the way Emanuel employs tension in even the shortest TV news snippet, splaying his hands across a podium, neither raising nor lowering his voice (even when annoyed), staying dead-eyed and dead serious and rigidly poised, never gesturing or whining.

CHICAGO

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