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It Comes Undone

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2000


    'The Contender' Joan Allen is a vice presidential appointee under fire.
(Gino Mifud/DreamWorks)
It's devastating what an unfortunate lapse in the latter stages of a movie can do.

Suddenly the whole film feels like a disaster, even if everything was going swimmingly until then. Such is human perception. And such is the case with "The Contender," a thoroughly engrossing inside-Washington thriller that trips headlong on its political agenda.

This is a tragedy because "The Contender," starring Joan Allen in a standout role, has so much going for it. I was having a great time with this well-wrought Washington thriller – which doesn't need a high body count to keep you on the edge of your seat.

The story, then. President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges, in a fine, funny performance), a Democrat, is casting about for someone to replace his late vice president. So he selects Laine Hanson, a senator who switched ranks from the Republicans. Suddenly President Evans is on the verge of creating a great legacy: installing the first female vice president in history.

But Hanson faces stiff resistance from Republican congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) and his confirmation committee, which includes wet-behind-the-ears Democrat freshman Reginald Webster (Christian Slater). Runyon, a pro-life, pro-school prayer Republican who prefers a charismatic male governor (William Peterson)as the next VP, has no intention of confirming the more liberal female candidate.

The meat of this movie is the way Runyon works behind the scenes to further his agenda. Cue the Right Wing Conspiracy! Suddenly, on the Internet, there are pictures of a younger, naked Hanson at a college sex party. And there's Runyon, pretending to take the higher ground at the hearings, as he politely grills Hanson. Now we're looking at exciting, face-to-face chicken between Hanson and Runyon. This back-and-forth between the stoic Hanson and the scheming Runyon is clearly meant to evoke Hillary Clinton's attempt in Hill hearings to sell the Clinton administration's health care ideas to the Republicans. And for the character of Runyon, we can see many real-life models, particularly former senator and Clinton adversary Alfonse D'Amato.

What's Hanson's explanation for this embarrassing episode in her past? How can she answer and survive this controversy? Hanson, the president and his seasoned advisers (Sam Elliott and Saul Rubinek) get to work, formulating a strategy.

This is a movie of great performances. It's a cinch that Allen should anticipate an Oscar nomination. Bridges is a delight as the president. Elliott is superb as the seen-it-all adviser Kermit Newton, who talks straight but knows how to turn on the charm.

But the male actor in charge of this movie is Oldman. As Runyon, he's virtually unrecognizable, and utterly appealing – in spite of his manipulative, underhanded ways. Runyon is operating out of conviction, not just pure evil. And he's a gentleman at all times. Which makes him devilishly compelling. I can't tell you how much pleasure I had watching him.

But then writer-director Rod Lurie, a former film critic and entertainment reporter who made the memorable nuclear-war thriller "Deterrence," succumbs to heavy-handed politicizing. Obviously, the audience is meant to salute President Evans's climactic State of the Union address – replete with stirring music – which states a litany of Democrat values that are, at best, politically divisive. There's nothing wrong with expressing a political opinion. But this movie was originally about two equally matched sides, both trying to win a political chess game. It was a thriller, not a polemic.

And there are some other flaws, too. "The Contender," which takes such care to create a believable political climate, throws in a fourth-quarter surprise that cheapens everything with second-rate melodrama. And though it has a noble central precept, that a woman has the same right to make mistakes, live it up and then go for higher office as a man does, it still holds Allen's character accountable for her past. Between the lines, it still matters whether she indulged in sexual escapades or not.

Nonetheless, I can recommend the first two-thirds of this movie with great enthusiasm. It's such fun, especially for Washingtonians and politicos, to watch inside baseball in the Oval Office and on Capitol Hill. Sure, there are some unconvincing political details. But for the most part, the Washington stuff is believable enough. And given the lack of choice around us, you could do worse than have a good time sitting through "The Contender."

"The Contender" (R, 130 minutes) – Contains nudity, sexual scenes and obscenity. Area theaters.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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