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Table That Notion

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2000


    'The Contender' "The Contender" portrays a sex scandal on Capitol Hill. It could only happen in the movies, right? (Gino Mifsud/DreamWorks)
Rod Lurie's "The Contender" is so full of cuss and vinegar that people in this town should find it highly amusing. The sparks fly furiously and the plotting and counter-plotting pinwheel wildly. It's just like real life, except other people are getting wrecked. What fun! What delicious schadenfreude!

Basically, the film decodes into Otto Preminger's staid old "Advise & Consent," tarted up for the '00s with allegations of group sex, ruinous reputation-wrecking Internet leaks, brassy performances, all of it twisted from a right-wing bias to a left-wing one.

Its hero is a liberal Democratic senator chosen by the president to fill in as vice president after the death of the original. That the senator is a woman is only part of the problem; the real problem is that everybody else's preferred choice, the Democratic governor of Virginia, has some never-explained (and perhaps unexplainable) alliance with the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who is therefore determined to sandbag her in hearings before his committee. His favored technique is to leak unconfirmed info about a sexual scandal in her past.

Possibly meant to recall the late unpleasantness involving President Clinton or Justice Clarence Thomas, the movie shows a Washington dogfight/sex scandal in all its bloody glory. It stands foursquare for such traditional American principles as a woman's right to choose multiple simultaneous sex partners and a president's to humiliate the opposition in the name of a higher good, namely his legacy. Yet it's oddly full of discordant notes that suggest that the film isn't quite the clarion call to political correctness it seems to be.

The first oddity is Joan Allen as the senator, Laine Hanson of Ohio. She's playing the nominal liberal martyr to a typical Hollywood-left version of the rapacious right, yet the character is hardly an inspirational figure, or, should I say to be scrupulous, I did not find her an inspirational figure. As Allen plays her, she's a stiff-necked prig, a sanctimonious, pampered child of the governing class. On the stand, she turns out to be a rigid leftist of the most arrogant stripe. Liberals may love her in theory, but in fact – that is, on the screen – she's extremely hard to warm to. She reminded me of the old Pat Nixon joke, about the ice cream cake with the figure of the president and first lady on top, and everybody waited for them to melt; of course, Pat never did. Neither does Joan.

Then there's her tendency to go jogging at Arlington National Cemetery – hardly, I would think, an image meant to win the hearts and minds of common people, and certainly something West Point graduate and ex-infantry officer Lurie would be aware of. That site, after all, is less a recreational park than a reliquary of the bones of secular saints. Does writer-director and ex-Capt. Lurie mean to suggest that the boys of Pont du Hoc and Chosin Reservoir and Quang Tri died so that an Ohio Democrat could exercise her right to keep her butt tight?

And her moral stand seems equally contrived to be provocative rather than absolutely right. Faced with grotesque photographs that appear to show her having group sex as a college student, she refuses to defend herself. She will not admit her participation, she will not deny it. She simply declares her private life irrelevant to her political career. It seems, in this instance, a clear stand on principle. But how sure are we of this? For example, if she had been a child abuser, a pathological liar, an income tax cheat, would those elements of a private life be irrelevant? And so you wonder if Lurie really means this, or if he's trying to have it both ways. (And, a friend points out, she stands for a kind of feminism that men especially like: lots of sex with everyone.)

Equally at odds with the conventional are Lurie's portrayals of the two power brokers who are really at war in this tiff. President Jackson Evans is played by Jeff Bridges, and although I don't know Martin Sheen and have never worked with Martin Sheen, he's no Martin Sheen. He's a kind of a smug, sly bully, who seems slightly drunk most of the time, and is less committed to principles than to winning. That's a point made splendidly obvious when she says to his chief of staff Kermit Newman, the great Sam Elliott, that if they respond in kind, the Democrats will be no better than the Republicans. He replies in the movie's most memorable line: "We are no better than they are!"

The president is opposed by Republican Shelly Runyon, head of the Judiciary Committee, played as a twisty little schemer by Gary Oldman, under tendrils of confused hair masking an otherwise bald pate. His heavy glasses turn his eyes ditsy; his ill-fitting suits turn his frame scrawny; everything has been done to nerdify him except give him a pocket protector and a Bible.

Yet Oldman is too good an actor to contribute caricatures, and no matter how he was meant, his little guy, with corkscrew hair and a simmering sense of resentment, seems somehow the most human element in the movie. He may be accidentally subverting the movie, much in the way Kevin Pollak made the villainous bomb-dropping president the improbable hero of Lurie's last film, "Deterrence," but who really knows?

As entertainment of a tawdry but compelling sort, "The Contender" certainly delivers. Its ending, however, which involves the president's appearance before House and Senate to make noisy demands that one of his goals be instantly granted, seems something grafted on after focus groups demanded a bigger bang. It may work dramatically (or not, depending on your politics) but from a technical point of view, it's incorrect.

Presidents are not empowered to convene both houses to listen to them (Clinton and Reagan both tried and were turned down); they can address both houses only at the invitation of both houses, and since the Republicans in this case control the House, it seems unlikely they'd grant him the podium to yell at them.

There's a reason why the Hill guards this right so carefully. It prevents exactly what the movie depicts: a demagogue, playing to the camera, identifying his policy with all that is self-evidently right and good in America and his opponents as scum and trash, rallying his forces and scattering theirs with a rousing speech delivered in their faces.

That system is called rule by checks and balances over time, as a guard against rule by loudmouth posturing in the heat of the moment. It's built so that there's a healthy mile of Pennsylvania Avenue between the Hill and 1600, both literally and symbolically. Those old guys in the wigs: They knew what they were doing, no?

"The Contender" (130 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for mild nudity, sexual innuendo and continual profanity.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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