It Comes Undone
By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2000
what an unfortunate lapse in the latter stages of a movie can do.
Joan Allen is a vice presidential appointee under fire.
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
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
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
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.