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Movie Review

Joan Allen at Heart of 'The Contender'

Writer-director Rod Lurie wrote the script for the actress, who is convincing in first post-Monica potboiler.

October 13, 2000|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

An unlikely combination of "West Wing" and the National Enquirer, "The Contender" is the type of trashy but watchable political melodrama we don't get much of anymore.

Ripped from today's headlines with a veneer of social consciousness thrown in free of charge, it's bombastic, pulpy and way contrived. But it does move right along and it's enlivened by stronger, more enjoyable acting than this kind of picture usually provides.

Written and directed by Rod Lurie, "The Contender" serves up a look at the rough and tumble of presidential politics that makes the gang at "West Wing" look like the Little Sisters of the Poor. Cheerfully and convincingly playing to our worst suspicions of how things are done in Washington, it presents politicians who are even more craven, back-stabbing and manipulative than we dare allow ourselves to imagine.

"The Contender" can also be seen as, drumroll please, the first post-Monica Lewinsky potboiler. It's hard to imagine the seamier aspects of the film's plot being even as marginally credible as they are now without those endless discussions of foreplay in the Oval Office. As it is, "The Contender" dreams up a really nasty sexual/political scandal, makes the most of it, and then after the titillation is over finds time to wave the flag and be patriotic. Which is why, though political leaders come and go, there'll always be a Hollywood.

It's not President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) who's in trouble this time; he's too preoccupied dreaming up dishes for the White House kitchen to prepare ("the perk of the century") to do anything naughty. But his vice president has inconveniently died and a fierce battle to be a heartbeat away from the power to order shark sandwiches a la carte is underway.

Gov. Jack Hathaway (William Petersen) is thought to be a top contender, especially after an act of personal heroism that opens the film, but the president, as presidents will, has other ideas. He wants Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), a senator from Ohio who's a recent convert to the president's party.

*

Attractive, well-spoken, the daughter of a governor and married with a small son, Hanson would seem to be a trouble-free candidate. But then testimony and even photographic evidence surfaces insisting that as a freshman in college she engaged in the kind of sexual practices we usually don't have photographs of vice presidents engaging in.

Actually, this stuff doesn't just surface. Its appearance is orchestrated by an old enemy of the president's and friend of Hathaway's, the man coincidentally in charge of the confirmation hearings, Congressman Shelly Runyon. Rumpled, twitchy and nervous, with thinning curly hair and a noticeable bald spot, Runyon resembles a younger Arthur Miller and not at all like the man who's playing him, Gary Oldman.

Having the English-born actor, better known for overtly villainous, at times over-the-top performances, take on the role of a shambling, opportunistic Midwestern congressman may sound like something of a stunt. In fact, Oldman does a remarkable job with the role, channeling his considerable energy and skill into hiding the person we're used to seeing and creating this brand-new and convincing individual.

Writer-director Lurie has said that he wrote not only the starring role but this entire picture with Joan Allen in mind, and it's everyone's great good fortune that she ended up playing Laine Hanson. The senator is the heart of the picture, and Allen, without doubt as fine an actress as is working today, makes the difficult role of a woman who cannot reveal her increasingly intense feelings in public look natural, seamless and completely convincing.

"The Contender" does touch on some serious issues (the double standard in public life for men and women, whether a politician's personal life is anyone's business but his or her own) but its heart lies with the luridness of its plotting. The film's lively twists are not too difficult to see coming down the road, but the proceedings still hold our attention and keep us wanting to know how it's going to turn out. Which is more than you can say about real political events in this day and age.

* MPAA rating: R, for strong sexual content and language. Times guidelines: somewhat graphic scenes of a simulated orgy.

'The Contender'

Gary Oldman: Shelly Runyon

Joan Allen: Laine Hanson

Jeff Bridges: President Jackson Evans

Christian Slater: Reginald Webster

Sam Elliott: Kermit Newman

William Petersen: Jack Hathaway

DreamWorks Pictures and Cinerenta/Cinecontender present a Battleground production in association with the Seb Group, released by DreamWorks Pictures. Director Rod Lurie. Producers Marc Frydman, Douglas Urbanski, Willi Baer, James Spies. Executive producers Dr. Rainer Bienger (Cinerenta), Gary Oldman, Maurice Leblond. Screenplay Rod Lurie. Cinematographer Denis Maloney. Editor Michael Jablow. Costumes Matthew Jacobsen. Music Larry Groupe. Production design Alexander Hammond. Art director Halina Gebarowicz. Set decorator Eloise Stammerjohn. Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes.

In general release

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