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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!