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Director: Rod Lurie

Producers: Marc Frydman, Willi Bar, James Spies, Douglas Urbanski

Executive Producers:Dr. Rainer Bienger, Gary Oldman, Maurice Leblond

Written by: Rod Lurie

Cast: Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges, Sam Elliott, Christian Slater, Mariel Hemingway, Philip Baker Hall

Rating: out of 5

As THE CONTENDER opens, the governor of Virginia is fishing with a reporter when a car plunges over the edge of the causeway. The gov dives in, but is unable to rescue the woman driving the car.

Shift to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., where President Jackson Evans (Bridges) is in need of a VP, his sidekick having died three weeks before. As he hunkers down with his advisors to ponder the short list of candidates, news of the Virginia governor’s heroism runs on all the major TV networks. Interestingly, though, the President instead goes with Senator Laine Hanson (Allen), daughter of a former Republican governor of Ohio and herself a Republican-turned-Democrat.

Shift again to the House of Representatives, where Shelly Runyon (Oldman), a powerful Republican representative who heads the committee that will vet the VP nomination, is not amused. Runyon allows as how his idea of a good Democrat is the honorable governor of Virginia, not Hanson. It wasn’t made clear to me why, exactly, he objected to Hanson but not to the governor, and Runyon’s active objecting is what drives the story. Well surprise, surprise! Investigators conveniently discover Penthouse-quality photos of Hanson putting on a sex show during her undergrad days, and Runyon sharks up a band of lawless irresolutes who swear they lined up to have sex with Hanson at a frat party. When Hanson refuses to answer questions about her private life, her sexual behavior becomes the focus of the Congressional hearings.

I have to wonder who talked Joan Allen into taking this blank page of a role. Screenwriter Lurie hasn’t lavished nearly as much care on her role as he has on the men’s roles. The two male leads are fully fleshed roles that give actors stuff to do, and as a result, they’re realized by some of the best performances Bridges and Oldman have ever given.

Jeff Bridges plays president as a modern-day Andy Griffith—the kind of smart country boy we wish was in the White House—a guy whose big personality and red-blooded appetites make him seem deceptively easy to outfox. (Curiously, President Evans is completely unsexed—no wife, no nothin’. I guess in the post-Clinton universe of THE CONTENDER, presidents put it all in blind trust). Anyway, Bridges’ Jackson Evans is an LBJ-like master of simultaneous plotting and glad-handing.

Gary Oldman is in fine form, abandoning what I’d feared was a permanent over-the-top method to give a fabulously shifty-yet-righteous performance as a man who firmly believes that he does what he does to do good. Here’s how good he is: I was several minutes into the movie before I even recognized him, and I’ll bet if I hadn’t told you his character’s name you wouldn’t have spotted him either.

Here are some questions I had about THE CONTENDER: Is this film underexposed or are we supposed to absorb some unsubtle message about power and politics and darkness? All that cussing by everyone except Hanson—what are you saying there? Isn’t it kind of like hitting us with a mallet to have the politics-is-war talk voiced over Sen. Hanson’s jog amongst the crosses at Arlington National Cemetery? And by the way, can you really jog over the graves at Arlington?

The maddening thing is, THE CONTENDER shows flashes of possibility, with good lines and the very nicely drawn character of President Evans. But why couldn’t Lurie have done the same for Laine Hanson? I never felt for this woman; she was just a generic for any public figure who’s the victim of sexual witch-hunting. Worse, Lurie utterly ruins an already shaky movie by having Hanson tell what really happened at the end.

Through this movie, Lurie manages to get said all of the things that seem to be bugging him about the Clinton sex scandals and the current climate in which candidates and politicians must operate. But wouldn’t a letter to the Times have sufficed?

— Roxanne Bogucka — an Action Grrl!

HYBRID Ratings Guide:

- Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

- It’s worth a full-price ticket.

- It’s worth a matinee ticket.

- Wait for video rental.

- Check out the video from the library, if you must.

- While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...

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