*The Contender (R)
One-time film critic Rod Lurie wrote his political thriller The Contender specifically for Joan Allen (Nixon, Pleasantville) because he thinks she's "the best actress in the world."
You'd be hard-pressed to argue with the same guy who directed The Contender because of Allen's pitch-perfect characterization of -- neither shaken nor stirred -- Democratic vice president nominee Laine Hanson. The movie directly addresses gender-aimed political hypocrisy that obstructs our political system with impeccable humor, fury and finesse.
The Contender is a clarion call that challenges what is and isn't appropriate in the political process. If that sounds dry and boring, The Contender is exactly the opposite. There are more bitterly biting and cleverly funny scenes in this movie than in The Parallax View and The Manchurian Candidate put together. From its unexpected opening scene in which a small-town governor attempts an underwater rescue in a Virginia river, to the last unforeseen revelation about Laine's sexual indiscretions in college, The Contender is a completely enticing and fun movie that audiences will be talking about for the rest of the year. For all of the undeserved acclaim poured on Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog a few years ago, this is a political movie that shows how far the genre can go in fleshing out ethics and principles while spinning suspense every step of the way.
After the death of his vice president, US President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) chooses Senator Laine Hanson to fill the Vice chair as a swan-song gesture of his tenure in the Oval Office toward gender equality. But word of Hanson's nomination, doesn't sit well with nasty old-school Congressman Shelly Runyon, played by a sinister Gary Oldman, who immediately connives with running-dog freshman Congressman Reginald Webster (Christian Slater) to publicly smear Hanson's reputation with photos of her engaging in a gang bang during her wild college sorority days. One depraved cohort describes Hanson's imminent downfall as similar to stabbing someone right in the navel: "Even the healing hand of Jesus Christ himself couldn't stop the bleeding." The congressional questioning sessions that follow push Hanson to prove her political principles in a way that rings like an uncracked Liberty Bell.
Hanson absolutely refuses to dignify the board's sordid assertions with any response as the media proceed to eat her for lunch. When the shameful photos show up on the World Wide Web, the feeding frenzy speeds out of control. Hanson simplifies her stance to the inexperienced Webster (Slater) by making an analogy to the McCarthy HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) hearings. "If the first person the HUAC committee interrogated had refused to answer any of the council's trumped up charges, it would have sent a strong message of propriety, and perhaps prevented the ruin that followed in McCarthy's witch hunt."
Oldman is practically unrecognizable as Runyon, a slimy old right-winger from the Midwest, complete with bad balding hair, thick black glasses, and some of the ugliest clothes imaginable. Oldman, who executive produced the $10 million movie, takes special glee in savoring his character's seething sexual frustration and ego-fueled command over the private chess game of Washington politics.
But the man to beat -- as America considers the choice of Ralph Nader, George W. Bush or Al Gore -- is Jeff Bridges as President Jackson Evans. With a Gordon Gecko haircut ( la Michael Douglas in Wall Street) Bridges exudes more command over the presidential office than Clinton on his best day. When he offers Congressman Webster a bite of his "shark sandwich" before shifting gears into a brief lecture on the subjective insignificance of "following your heart," it's more than a bust-up-laughing bit of actorly genius; it's a consummate example of Bridges' lion-taming ability that America lacks in the Oval Office. His closing speech shows Bridges inhabiting the highest political office with ironclad authority.
Hey, with Jeff Bridges for president and Joan Allen as his running mate, it might not be too late to turn this country around.