In Washington, duplicity runs deep. But, in THE CONTENDER, the extremely
impressive second feature film by writer and director Rod Lurie
(DETERRENCE), there is at least one politician for whom principles are more
important than politics, even if her integrity costs her the honor of being
the nation's first female vice president. Speaking of honors, expect to see
this political thriller and morality tale garner many well deserved Oscar
nominations including, but not limited to, Best Actress (Joan Allen) and
Best Supporting Actor (Gary Oldman).
Ohio Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) is a Republican turned Democrat and
an avowed atheist. She may not believe in God, but she certainly has an
unfailing commitment to her principles. "Principles only mean something if
you stick to them when it's inconvenient," she explains with utter
sincerity. She may or may not be the next vice president, and it is her
adherence to her principles that seems likely to come between her and the
job she so desires. Allen, in a consistently strong performance, never
lets Senator Hanson dissolve into self-righteousness. She gives a
sympathetic performance that doesn't require sympathy to admire.
The elected vice president died six weeks ago, so President Jackson Evans
(Jeff Bridges) has to choose a successor. Knowing that 300 FBI agents
investigated Nelson Rockefeller, the only other vice presidential
replacement, President Evans wants to make his choice carefully. But it's
more than that. Six years into office, the president views the choice as
his "swan song."
The sharply written script mixes heavy drama with sweet comedy. The
president, for example, not having to run again, is kicking back and really
enjoying the trappings of his office. He brags that he can order absolutely
anything he wants 24 hours a day, and he can never stump his chef. He even
has a bowling ball with the presidential seal engraved on it, which he uses
in his own private bowling alley. It's a great life, and he's making the
most of it. Bridges's charismatic performance is full of nuances and
subtlety that leaves us never quite sure of his motivations.
As the story opens, popular Senator Jack Hathaway (William L. Petersen)
seems to be the likely nominee, especially after his daring attempted rescue
of a girl whose car goes into the lake near where he is fishing.
Surprisingly, the President brushes his candidacy aside, claiming that
someone might decide that his heroism was actually another Chappaquidick
episode. This sets up Senator Hathaway to be the shadow candidate for those
opposed to the president's eventual nominee, Senator Hanson.
The president's long-time nemesis, Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman),
ends up chairing the nomination hearings. Looking like a nerdish version of
Roberto Benigni (LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL), Runyon's body shakes nervously and his
upper lip perspires profusely when he presides over his committee. The
congressman is at once utterly polite and completely devious. When he
uncovers a college sex scandal involving Senator Hanson, he salivates at the
possibilities and doesn't shy away. He and his fellow conspirators brag to
themselves that they are going "to obliterate a life." Runyon's wife
worries, with good reason, that "he will go down as a second-rate Joe
McCarthy." No matter how unlikable Runyon becomes, Oldman never lets him
dissolve into caricature.
In a great, one-dimensional part, Sam Elliott plays Kermit Newman, the
president's hard-nosed Chief of Staff. When the scandal breaks, Newman
screams his demands. He wants dirt on Runyon, immediately: "Little boys,
midgets, cows," whatever they can find. His approach, however, isn't the
one that Senator Hanson feels comfortable with. She wants to talk nothing
but policy at her hearings -- the usual liberal litany of ban all handguns,
abolish the death penalty and guarantee a woman's right to choose. She
specifically refuses to dignify with any response the accusation that she
"put on a sex show" in college. After all, she reasons, if she were a man,
no one would care about how many women she had slept with in college.
All of the casting in this ensemble effort is terrific. Christian Slater is
good as a naive and ambitious young congressman who, in a career enhancing
attempt, negotiates his way onto the nominating committee. Like a minnow
swimming with sharks, he seems in constant danger.
Lurie's staging is masterful, even if sometimes a bit over the top. As
Congressman Runyon denounces Senator Hanson to the world -- "Laine Hanson is
a cancer!" -- we watch her jog through a military cemetery and pass the Iwo
Jima monument to the brave boys who fought for our freedom.
The beauty of the story is that we keep waiting for more shoes to drop.
Some of them do, but others we expect to, don't. And still others drop, but
turn out not to be what we expect. My only complaint is that one key twist
is needlessly telegraphed.
"You are an enigma...," the president says to Hanson, his would-be vice
president, late in the story. Interrupting him, she completes the famous
quote, "wrapped in a riddle." The movie itself is no enigma. Its
principles are crystal clear and dramatically demonstrated. THE CONTENDER
is ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN for our time.
THE CONTENDER runs 2:05. It is rated R for strong sexual content and
language and would be fine for most teenagers.
Copyright © 2000 Steve Rhodes