When the scandal over Bill Clinton's sexual desk-capades exploded, we
watched the President of the United States squirm before his inquisitors
like a 12-year-old boy whose mother caught him with a copy of Hustler. As
Clinton dodged questions, played word games and lied outright, many of us
wondered, "Why in the world is he subjecting himself to this? Why doesn't he
simply tell them his sex life is none of their business and refuse to answer
any questions about his private goings-on?"
According to "The Contender," the approach wouldn't work because once the
political wolf pack realized that their quarry was adamant about not
commenting on personal questions, they could freely lob even more lurid
accusations, secure in the knowledge that no assertion, however outrageous,
would be refuted.
Depressing, isn't it? Politics is a nasty business and "The Contender"
wallows in the muck. Masquerading as a high-minded ethical drama, the movie
is just another trashy melodrama, with a slew of respected actors chewing
Written and directed by Rod Lurie ("Deterrence"), the story begins a few
weeks after the unexpected death of the vice-president. A replacement must
be appointed and Virginia Governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen) looks
like a shoo-in for the position. Already a popular figure, his stature rises
quickly when, while being interviewed by a reporter during a fishing
excursion, a car plummets off a bridge and the governor immediately dives
into the icy water to attempt a rescue.
But President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) has other ideas. Determined to
stake out his place in the history books, Evans announces that a woman, Ohio
Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), is his choice for the job. The decision
enrages a number of imposing figures, including House Judiciary Committee
Chairman Sheldon Runyon (Gary Oldman) of Illinois.
Heading the confirmation hearings, Runyon pulls out all the stops in his
quest to discredit Hanson. In short order, the soft-spoken nominee is
confronted with allegations that, while in college, she participated in a
gang-bang with a group of frat boys. Instead of doing the Clinton squirm,
Hanson declares that her sexuality is nobody's business, refusing to
"dignify this line of questioning with any comments." Even when presented
with photographic evidence, she remains mute, firm in her conviction that a
line must be drawn between public life and personal matters.
So the political maneuvering escalates, with Runyon and his minions leveling
even uglier charges while the president and his staff frantically work on
damage control. How will this drama play out?
With lots of speechifying and a juicy contrived ending, of course.
"The Contender" does a number of things right. The film identifies the party
affiliations of its characters (a rarity in this type of fiction) and makes
direct references to real politicians and events. The verbose storyline
maintains a sense of tension all the way to the grand, goofy, finale. Jeff
Bridges creates a believable president, coming off like a hunky Lyndon
Johnson (although a running joke about his delight in being able to order
any food item at any hour wears thin about the fifth time around). And Gary
Oldman is enjoyable as Runyon, a nasty, paranoid, hypocritical power broker
reminiscent of Representative Dan Burton, the infamous Indiana pit bull who
chased cars all the way to Washington, DC. Oldman has a field day with the
role, spitting out melodramatic lines like "We're both sticking to our guns,
only mine are loaded" with relish.
While the production suffers from one-note supporting characters, chintzy
sets and claustrophobic camera work, the film's biggest liability is Laine
Hanson. The Republican-turned-Democrat Senator, who voted to impeach
President Clinton, is a pro-gun control, pro-choice, anti-death penalty
vegetarian atheist who publicly described the Bible as a "fairy tale." She
apparently was elected on some parallel Earth, because she certainly would
not have won in the Ohio of this planet. Joan Allen basically reprises her
role in "The Crucible" here, playing the potential vice-president as a
"Goodie" Hanson of prim self-containment. This character should face
reporters and declare, "Unless this country wants to scare off any competent
persons, we must stop putting politicians' private lives under a microscope.
It may cost me the vice-presidency, but I'm standing up for what I believe!"
Instead, she merely reiterates her refusal to discuss personal matters,
offering herself as a maddeningly passive martyr.
Luckily for her, the president and his bad boys are more than willing to get
down and dirty on her behalf. The moral of the story appears to be that
idealism and nobility can succeed in the world of politics, as long as lies,
threats and dirty tricks support those qualities. In terms of disposable
entertainment, "The Contender" is marginally acceptable junk food. As an
intellectual exercise, however, it left me with an upset stomach.
Copyright © 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott