Ride a dark horse

Movie: The Contender

Our Rating: 3.00

Too bad the real-life showdown between Al Gore and George W. Bush isn't as sensational or as riveting as the political machinations and dirty tricks on display in the Oval Office drama "The Contender." Wouldn't it liven up the Presidential election a bit if evidence of a sex scandal were to emerge from either camp?

Writer-director Rod Lurie (a former movie critic responsible for the poorly received Deterrence) gives us Democratic Sen. Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), whose chances to succeed a recently deceased vice president and become the new second-in-command to President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) are all but lost when news is leaked of a supposed sexual indiscretion in her past. The agent of this information -- the secret supplier of photos of a teen-aged Hanson embroiled in a romp with a frat house full of college boys -- is none other than (surprise!) an evil Republican by the name of Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman, almost unrecognizable in wacky hair plugs).

Runyon, a longtime adversary of the President, is presiding over the confirmation hearings, and will stop at nothing to discredit Hanson. How better to pave the way for his own choice, the sterling, apparently heroic Sen. Jack Hathaway (William Petersen)? The villain's grand plan is to gather a few trusted allies -- including rookie legislator Reginald Webster (Christian Slater) -- cook up some sordid tales from the nominee's past and hammer her on social issues (abortion, divorce) until she's perceived as an enemy of family values. The backroom strategizing successions (unwittingly reminiscent of scenes from the 1992 Clinton-campaign documentary, "The War Room") are all cloak and dagger. "We have to make her wade in her own blood," one shady operative suggests.

Hanson -- a former Republican who's said to have cast a vote for the impeachment of Clinton -- goes against the advice of her own allies and responds to the allegations with a deafening silence, hoping to avert the kind of messy discussions that might jeopardize her relationship with her loyal husband and inflict emotional damage on her young son. There are also solid feminist reasons for her decision to take the high road. "If it's not relevant for a man, it's not relevant for a woman," Hanson says of the accusations, which grow to include even more unsavory charges. It's the third-most-stirring speech in a movie that sometimes seems to consist of equal parts grandstanding and action.

Lurie is guilty of sending out some important messages -- particularly those that relate to the place of women in politics -- in a manner that's far too shrill. But he bolsters his Beltway-junkie popcorn movie with a fine cast. Allen, who played Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone's "Nixon," is terrific as the pragmatic, brave VP hopeful. Bridges is on target as a self-satisfied, Clintonesque president whose favorite game is to order obscure dishes from the White House kitchen. Slater successfully goes the way of naïve idealism. Oldman is as over-the-top as a human cartoon ought to be. And Sam Elliott (he of the barrel-scraping voice and threatening demeanor) makes a convincing Evans staffer. Philip Baker Hall, Robin Thomas and Mariel Hemingway are likewise effective in smaller parts.

But neither its script nor its direction enable "The Contender" to become as entertaining as Primary Colors or "Wag the Dog," nor as compelling as "All the President's Men" or "The Candidate." Call it a lost opportunity, and a sure sign that movies about politics, sadly, are not making a comeback.


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