Rated R - Running Time: 2:06 - Released 10/13/00

I was beginning to think I had become so jaded as a film critic, I was incapable of ever really enjoying a movie again. I am proved pleasantly wrong with The Contender, a presidential drama rich with good performances, pleasing cinematography, good direction, and a high-calibre script. Written and directed by former journalist Rod Lurie, whose 1998 feature debut Deterrence, which also bore a presidential theme, drew mixed reviews, The Contender shows that he is working toward producing a more credible result with his sophomore outing.

The film centers around vice-presidential designate Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), a former Republican chosen by Democratic President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) to be the first woman in history to fill the recently-deceased V.P.'s spot. Things may not be as rosy as the White House garden, however: her confirmation hearing is to be presided over by Republican Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), who has a grudge against Hanson for switching parties, and against President Evans for soundly beating him in the most recent election. Runyon's choice for Vice President is Virginia Governor Jack Hathaway (William L. Petersen), but thanks to an unfortunate incident in which Hathaway is unable to save a woman from drowning, the president fears a Chappaquiddick-type scandal, and decides to appoint Hanson instead.

Soon after the confirmation hearing begins, things turn ugly. Runyon's staff, including freshman Representative Reginald Webster (Christian Slater), find some dirt on Hanson: according to several sources, Hanson willingly participated in a gangbang while a freshman in college in order to be admitted to a sorority. Her alleged "sex show" is revealed in photos, in testimony of former college classmates, and even on video. Although her face is never clearly seen, everyone agrees that it was indeed the V.P. designate who is getting down and dirty in the pictures. The resulting scandal rocks the hearing, the White House, and the nation, while Sen. Hanson doggedly refuses to dignify the charges with an answer.

Like the many presidential flicks to come along in recent years (Wag The Dog, Primary Colors, Bulworth), The Contender attempts to reveal not only the insider's view of the political process, but our nation's ravenous obsession with scandal and the attempt on the part of politicians to exploit it for political gain. The truth is, Runyon doesn't care about Senator Hanson's sexual history, he wants her out because she is a "turncoat" to the Republican party and a "cancer of liberalism." But he knows that the only way to get his political wish is to drag her name through the dirt. Lurie's screenplay is interesting from various points of view, including work done by several members of both parties, attempting attacks and counter attacks as the hearing goes on. It's an interesting look at the intricate chess game of politics, where the creation of a scandal, and the reaction to it, are carefully orchestrated for the necessary political result.

In addition to the fascinating script, Lurie uses interesting camera work and memorable images as a backdrop for his story. And the performances are first-rate. Allen, who has done good supporting work in films like Nixon and Pleasantville, distinguishes herself well in the leading role. Excellent supporting performances by Bridges, Oldman (who also executive- produced the film), and Slater add a great deal of depth, not to mention Sam Elliott as the president's top aide in the crisis.

The Contender has renewed my faith that good movies can indeed be produced if enough care is given to the production. It's too bad so many of 2000's films have failed to do that. *****

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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