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The Contender

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Joan Allen, testifying before a Senate committee, denies any involvement in "Face/Off".

2000, Dreamworks
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Bill Clinton's presidency has coincided with a peculiar spike in movies featuring the chief executive as a major character — "Dave," "Guarding Tess," "The American President," "Nixon," "Independence Day," "My Fellow Americans," "Air Force One," "Absolute Power," "Murder at 1600," "Primary Colors" and "Deep Impact," among others — but none of them, not even "Wag the Dog," are quite like "The Contender" (IMDb listing).

The film chronicles the confirmation hearings of Sen. Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) for the vice presidency after President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) nominates her after the death of the previous veep. The hearings are overseen by Rep. Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), who sincerely doubts Hanson's qualifications and dedicates resources to smear her ... which results in the unearthing of photographs and testimony which place Hanson in a frat house threesome back in her college days.

That's just the skeleton of it, however. To create an appropriately evocative synopsis would take paragraphs upon paragraphs; "The Contender" is front-loaded with plot the way few major studio releases are. The information density is one of the things that most suggests that the movie is a parallel-universe consideration of the Clinton presidency, but it's deeper than that — the movie is actually set in some unspecified post-Clinton future (in the hearings, Hanson testifies about why she voted to impeach him). And also unlike "Wag the Dog," which exaggerated the situation by making the president's other woman a Girl Scout, "The Contender" changes the scenario in fundamental ways — the issue becomes gender equity, not perjury, and conspiratorial subplots abound.

Thankfully, the conspirators are all great. With perhaps the year's strongest ensemble cast, "The Contender" doesn't waste any talent, and as stunning as smaller players like Sam Elliot and William L. Petersen are, it's the majors who carry the film. Oldman makes Runyon's indignation so righteous it seems like more than acting; Allen finally breaks loose of her ice queen mantle with a career-redefining performance that makes many demands of her, and she meets them all; Bridges's Evans is a confluence of Clinton and Reagan that evokes the popularity of each while suggesting the skills really required of a president.

It's writer/director Lurie who sets the bar so high for these actors by creating characters as human and believable as in the great, quasibiographical "Primary Colors" (and it takes a lot to overcome a viewer's antipathy toward politicians). As a director, however, Lurie's skills aren't quite so well-honed. The movie is jarring in ways both intentional — it communicates well the mania that accompanies the situation with its roving lens and complicated set-ups — and unintentional — many of the film's tonal stoplights, such as its abrupt music cues, are too prominent. But Lurie compensates for almost every problem behind the camera by drawing great performances from his actors.

The movie's focus on gender equity quickly eclipses all other issues it posits, and by the time the title cards "The End," "For Our Daughters" and "Written and Directed by Rod Lurie" appear in quick succession, the stake the film is unapologetically claiming is quite clear. Unlike more abhorrent attempts to suggest a sexual double standard still exists against women in positions of power, however, Lurie's film makes its case well.

"The Contender's" greatest problem is that it makes it too well. Following Allen's best character moment in the movie — the conclusion of an argument with Runyon about abortion that demonstrates the better part of valor — the film changes from polished potboiler to superpolitico fantasy. The movie's "All the President's Men" vibe takes a sharp turn into "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" territory, and what's remarkable is that it more or less works. Frank Capra's 1939 film remains one of the only films to approach American politics with an idealism that survives a baptism by fire, and watching the movie is enough to make anyone's blood run red, white and blue. The final, grandstanding scenes of "The Contender" strive for the same effect — an effect one can hardly imagine coming out a story inspired by Clinton/Lewinsky imbroglio.

It's ballsy of Lurie to try it, but it is this suspension of disbelief, this saintmaking, that allows the movie to achieve its rhetorical purpose and have a happy ending. Audiences will be engaged in a back-and-forth for a long time regarding whether they find it plausible: Can we believe that a Jefferson Smith could rise through the sullied political waters the film details? Do we hold out any hope for Washington anymore? With a presidential election weeks away, public reaction to "The Contender" should prove as fascinating as the movie.

Filmfodder Grade: A-

Review courtesy Flak Magazine

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