[Screen It]

(2000) (Joan Allen, Gary Oldman) (R)

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Drama: Nominated to fill the vacant Vice-Presidential post, a U.S. Senator finds her nomination in danger after a conservative House committee chairman tries to use allegations of her alleged prior sexual escapades to embarrass her and the Presidency.
It's been three weeks since the Vice-President of the United States died and second-term President Jackson Evans (JEFF BRIDGES) needs to fill the post. Although Governor Jack Hathaway (WILLIAM PETERSEN) appears to be the top Democratic candidate, his recent failed attempt at saving a drowning woman worries Evans that voters will be reminded of the Chappaquiddick incident from the late '60s.

As such, he decides that Ohio Senator Laine Hanson (JOAN ALLEN) should be the candidate for the job. Although Chief of Staff Kermit Newman (SAM ELLIOT) and White House Communications Director Jerry Toliver (SAUL RUBINEK) realize it will be a tough battle successfully getting an atheistic, pro-choice and former Republican woman nominated, they stand by the President's decision and proceed with the process which begins with a standard FBI background check run by special agent Paige Willomina (KATHRYN MORRIS).

Chief among their obstacles is Illinois Congressman Shelly Runyon (GARY OLDMAN), an older, conservative statesman who will oversee and run the nomination process through his committee. Joined by freshman Delaware Congressman Reginald Webster (CHRISTIAN SLATER), Runyon proceeds to do whatever he can within his power to make sure that he defeats Laine's nomination.

As the process begins, allegations soon fly about Laine's past as photos and stories of her wild collegiate life are uncovered, including that of her simultaneously having sex with two men. Attempting to maintain her dignity, Laine refuses to acknowledge the allegations or discuss her past, stating that it's no one's business and has no bearing on her qualifications.

Nonetheless, things begin to spiral out of control for Laine and her husband, William (ROBIN THOMAS), especially when new allegations arise regarding his previous wife, Cynthia Lee (MARIEL HEMMINGWAY). As the White House tries to apply major damage control and the various pundits offer their opinions of how to proceed, a strategic political game then develops between those who favor and those who oppose the nomination, with Laine trying to stay above the fray as each party willingly tries to do whatever it takes to emerge victorious.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
Back in the late '80s when I was hired to do TV and audio work for the U.S. Senate, my coworkers and I were amazed and shocked by the fact that, at least to our and our families and friends' knowledge, no background security checks were done on us to look for past criminal or otherwise suspicious behavior. Conversely, I knew of computer programmers for the U.S. Navy who were thoroughly checked out, with their neighbors routinely being interviewed by government agents curious about their activities and behavior.

While computer software and related government secrets are obviously a big deal, by the time the Senate finally got its act together and fingerprinted all of us years after working there, I had already been within inches of George Bush (as President and Vice-President), Vice-President Dan Quayle, all of the cabinet members and every top ranking member of the Senate.

Of course, times have changed, and ever since terrorism has been on the rise and Gary Hart dared the press to catch him involved in any "Monkey Business," not only are government workers carefully screened, but politicians and hopeful candidates also get scrutinized by the government, the press, and their opponents and their well-financed supporters.

Whereas past indiscretions such as JFK's alleged affairs with various women were always rumored but rarely explored, today's candidates had better have a squeaky clean past and a skeleton free closet lest their political career face the prospects of suddenly coming to a crashing halt. That's because many of today's voters often seem more interested in a politician's personal life rather than their career record or capabilities, and the whole Clinton scandal certainly brought that to the forefront.

Such skeleton hunting and unearthing is part of the entertaining and well-conceived and executed premise of "The Contender," a crackerjack political drama that may just earn itself a slew of award nominations, particularly for its three lead performers, especially in this otherwise lackluster movie year.

Former film critic turned writer/director Rod Lurie has certainly blossomed since his debut earlier this year with "Deterrence." While that film had its moments, it was essentially a one-set variation of "Failsafe" that had its share of both decent and somewhat ridiculous material. Barely released in theaters, the film nonetheless polarized critics into those who hated it and those who liked it or saw it as a guilty pleasure.

With this work, however, Lurie has graduated into the word of big-time filmmaking, easily showing that he's capable of playing with the big dogs by delivering an engaging and often riveting work that should be a hit among critics and average moviegoers alike.

On the surface, the premise is simple, yet effective. A liberal female Senator is up for the V.P. spot, a conservative House committee chairman doesn't like her, and sets out to ruin both her and her nomination. The contrasting political, ideological and gender-based attributes of the two obviously create palatable levels of conflict and drama.

Deeper down, however, Lurie's script adds layers of subtext and grayness that makes the proceedings even that much more interesting and complex. Although the film is rather clear-cut in who it wants us to root for as its hero and hate as the villain, neither they nor many of the other characters are pure black and white, or right or wrong.

Laine Hanson, wonderfully and deftly played by Joan Allen ("The Crucible," "Nixon") in a performance that should earn her a third Oscar nomination, is a dignified woman who steadfastly sticks by her beliefs, sort of like an idealistic version of Jimmy Stewart's character in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" had he been a woman in the present day Senate.

Yet, she's also human and an early scene of her fooling around with her husband purposefully plants a seed of doubt in our mind that later blossoms when we begin to wonder whether the later allegations of her sexual improprieties from the past might be true. Since she refuses to comment on them, we're never quite sure if she's simply sticking to her guns (that it's nobody's business) or is calmly trying to douse the rumors (that are true) before they burn down her career.

Hers is one of those characters that constantly frustrates but ultimately satisfies viewers since she won't defend herself or fight back with equally damaging and damning allegations, even if they are true. While it seems unlikely that many such people exist in today's world, it's refreshing to see such a character on the big screen, even if you're not always completely sure about her.

As true epic battle obviously needs a resourceful and strong-willed antagonist to confront and attack the hero, and Lurie gets that and more from Gary Oldman ("Lost in Space," "Air Force One") who should all but walk away with an Oscar for his uncanny performance as the conservative and self-righteous House committee chairman.

Barely recognizable in his makeup, attire and overall characterizations, Oldman creates a credible and worthy adversary (much like he's made a career of doing) out of what easily could have been a one-dimensional villain, inherently earmarked for our immediate and nonstop disdain. Yet, the mild vague qualities that both Lurie and Oldman inject into the character results in one of the most interesting and complex antagonists to hit the screen in some time.

Not to be left out, Jeff Bridges ("Arlington Road," "The Fisher King") completes the winning performance triad with his terrific take on the President who's looking to fulfill his legacy. It seems that writers and performers love writing for and playing this character - as evidenced by Aaron Sorkin and Michael Douglas and Martin Sheen's work in "The American President" and "West Wing" respectively.

Lurie and Bridges continue in that tradition, creating a complex and funny character who has no problem subtly but effectively playing his political hand or demonstrating his power and prowess (often through ordering exotic dishes through the White House kitchen in a terrific running gag).

Supporting performances are nearly as good with Christian Slater ("Very Bad Things," "Heathers") embodying the ambitious but hopeful and optimistic Mr. Smith type character and Sam Eliot ("Tombstone," "Mask") perfectly playing the gravely voiced, get anything done Chief of Staff. Other performances by the likes of William Petersen ("Fear," "Manhunter") and Saul Rubinek ("Dick," "Unforgiven") are also solid.

As was evident in "Deterrence," Lurie excels at creating high-stakes, political pressure cookers where strategy, smarts and intestinal fortitude go hand in hand, and all of that is entertainingly on display here. Despite a significant plot twist that some will see coming (due to a few details that are briefly discussed) and a lack of the type of suspenseful momentum that often builds in films like this and gets viewers' adrenaline pumping, this is an intelligent, thought-provoking and constantly engaging film that's easily one of the best of the year. Aptly named for what it and many of its performers may likely become around award season time, "The Contender" rates as an entertaining 8 out of 10.

Reviewed October 10, 2000 / Posted October 13, 2000

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