Election day is upon us, so a balls-out movie unafraid to pitch a few high hard ones at political hypocrisy should be just the ticket. Rod Lurie, the former film critic for KABC radio in Los Angeles, who wrote and directed this rouser, really wants The Contender to be that movie. He pumps honest energy into it, and enough potent performances to stuff the Oscar ballot box. What a shame that Lurie, a 1984 West Point grad and the son of political cartoonist Ronan Lurie, backs off nearly every provocative issue he raises. But until The Contender slips into partisan politics and platitudinous piety, it's a lively, entertaining ride.
The eye of the storm is Sen. Laine Hanson, played with fiery verve by Joan Allen. Forget all those prim, repressed housewives Allen embodied to perfection in Nixon, The Crucible, Pleasantville, Face/Off and The Ice Storm. The Contender gives this perennial supporting actress her first shot at a leading role, and she delivers a bust-out star performance. Laine is a take-charge lady. She defied her governor daddy (the great Philip Baker Hall) by switching parties to win a Democratic seat in the Senate. She even voted to impeach Clinton ("He was not guilty but responsible"), even though her husband, William (Robin Thomas), the father of her son, was once happily married to her best friend, Cynthia (Mariel Hemingway).
And yet departing President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges), faced with the death of the vice president, has nominated this woman to be his VP. It's not just the Republican opposition, led by Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), that's up in arms; chief of staff Kermit Newman (Sam Elliott) and communications director Jerry Toliver (Saul Rubinek) also have qualms. Those qualms turn to quakes when Shelly claims that Laine fucked and sucked her way through a frat-house sex party during her college days. Says one alleged witness: "There was come all over her face."
You don't see this stuff on The West Wing. Lurie misses no lurid touch to out-sleaze Monicagate. Laine will neither confirm nor deny the charges, refusing to submit to what she calls "sexual McCarthyism." Will the president stand behind a sex-crazed homewrecker? To call the outcome contrived would be putting it mildly. The fun comes from watching the actors rip into their roles.
Oldman, also the film's executive producer, rips the most. This British dynamo, whose talent is as outsize as his best-known roles (Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Dracula), is barely recognizable as a senior Midwestern pol with a receding hairline. But he's still a force of nature, making Shelly a demonic amalgam of Arlen Specter, Henry Hyde and Ken Starr. Just watch him try to corrupt the ideals of congressional freshman Reginald Webster (Christian Slater). But Oldman also gives the devil his due. Handed the caricatured role of a villain, he digs deep to show the human side of a man who has let revenge compromise his values and undercut his marriage to Maggie (a pained, powerful Irene Ziegler).
And you gotta love Bridges. That loose comic style he showed as the Dude in The Big Lebowski is still paying dividends. Since Bridges already possesses the gravitas of a leader, he feels free to loosen up with the humor. This president is a Clintonesque chowhound; he'll shamelessly interrupt a White House meeting to call the kitchen -"Otto, can you whip up some kung pao chicken with walnuts?" But between bites — "he also craves shark-steak sandwiches" — this prez can play it as down and dirty as his foes. The Contender, which grows increasingly preachy and pompous — a flaw shared by Lurie's less-accomplished debut film, Deterrence — can use every bit of scrappy playfulness that Bridges brings to the party. After a banquet, the president takes Laine for a late-night stroll on the White House lawn and persuades her to tell the truth about her past. They say the truth never hurt anyone, but it sure hurts this movie. Lurie borrows from political films as diverse as All the President's Men, The Candidate, Advise & Consent and Gore Vidal's The Best Man — now being revived on Broadway with its wit and sting intact — but he forgets that the drama is in the backroom finagling, not in the noble posturing that mars even Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Aiming for heroic action, Lurie ends up spewing out the worst thing for politics and movies: hot air.