The Contender

One of the marks of a truly great film is if it can draw you in so thoroughly that you begin to think what it thinks and believe in the world it creates. (This is also one of the marks of effective propaganda; I guess there’s a fine line.) “The Contender” may not be “truly great” in the sense of being an instant classic, but it certainly meets the criteria of expressing itself so well that you can’t help but agree with at least some of it.

Joan Allen gives a rock-solid, utterly believable performance as Sen. Laine Hanson, who is nominated by President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) to be his new vice president following the death of the elected veep.

Sen. Jack Hathaway (William L. Peterson) really wanted the job, and almost got it, but was deemed a liability — and now he’s angry. He’s friends with congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), a calmly serpentine Republican (everyone else are Democrats) who will head up the senate committee that confirms or rejects the nomination.

It isn’t just that Runyon wants his pal Hathaway in the White House: He also really, really DOESN’T want Hanson there. And so some old photos are drudged up in which the distinguished gentlewoman seems to be having a beer-fueled orgy, back when she was in college.

The questions emerge. Did this really happen? Is it anyone’s business if it did? Should Hanson respond to the allegations, or do they matter? Can politicans have private lives?

These are questions that have arisen more in the past few years than they ever had before. (Yes, Bill Clinton is specifically mentioned in the film.) Hanson firmly believes that the issue of whether she did the naughty stuff is irrelevant; in fact, the movie makes little effort to convince us she DIDN’T do it. The point is, true or not, it’s none of anyone’s business.

Rod Lurie wrote the screenplay and directed the film with crackling dialogue and intimate camera work. There are many close-ups, and the camera often follows people’s eyes, almost as if we’re watching a polished documentary. Idealistic young congressman Reginald Webster (Christian Slater), who is a wild card on the congressional committee, refers to Runyon’s allegations as “sexual McCarthyism.” Someone else says the whole thing is “an ideological rape of all women.” President Evans points out that Hanson has been characterized as a “sex-crazed, home-wrecking machine, a female Warren Beatty.” Great dialogue, snappy, and well-delivered.

Oldman and Allen are simply fantastic in their roles. The scenes during the hearing are amazing in that they seem as realistic as something on C-SPAN … yet they’re remarkably engrossing.

Hanson delivers a “What I Believe in” speech that is a bit much, especially with the faux-inspiring music behind it, and Evans gives another one. These are the only real false moments in an otherwise compelling film.

And what I said at the beginning about being caught up in it all: Personally, I feel that a politician’s private life is relevant to his job. A man or woman who behaves immorally in private is not someone I would trust to tell the truth and act in the best interest of the country. I really believe that character IS an important issue. I also strongly disagree with several of Sen. Hanson’s liberal viewpoints. Yet while watching the film, Joan Allen is so good that I began to feel like she should be confirmed and made vice president, despite her alleged personal shortcomings and political leanings, simply because she seemed like a good leader and a good person.

Not one for the ages, maybe. But “The Contender” is certainly an intelligent, thought-provoking, genuinely thrilling potboiler of a movie.

B+ (; R, abundant harsh profanity, some explicit.)