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'The Contender'

Former vices: Sex scandal haunts VP candidate in 'The Contender'

Friday, October 13, 2000

By Barry Paris Post-Gazette Movie Critic

The vice president is dead. Long live the vice president, as soon as they pick him -- or her. Leading candidate is Gov. Jack Hathaway (William Petersen) who, in the stunning first scene of "The Contender," is chatting philosophically with a media friend on a fishing boat when a car crashes through a bridge railing and plunges into water nearby. Hathaway's heroic dive to rescue the woman behind the wheel -- even though it fails -- is pure heroism personified and would seem to make him a shoo-in to replace the late Veep. But in film as in life, it's all up to the Prez.

'The Contender'

Rating: R for language, nudity and sex

Players: Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman, Christian Slater

Director: Rod Lurie

Web Site: www.thecontender

Critic's call: 2 1/2 stars


That would be Jeff Bridges as Jackson Evans, the chain-smoking chief executive who blows Oval Office smoke rings around everybody and has a different candidate in mind: Sen. Laine Hanson -- a woman. That would be Joan Allen, informed of her elevation in the White House bowling alley while Evans hurls gutter balls containing the presidential seal.

Her nemesis is Congressman Shelly Runyon, chairman of the confirmation hearings. That would be Gary Oldman, made up brilliantly with a bald spot and horn-rimmed glasses and a sinister nervousness like some politically demented Woody Allen. He backs Hathaway and he plays hardball.

Dirty hardball. Seems that Sen. Hanson has a sexy past: During the background check, investigators come up with photos of her engaging in a college fraternity gang bang at the age of 19! Ever so tacky. Runyon plans to use them to discredit her unless she backs out. But not only does she refuse to back out; she refuses even to deny or explain them.

"This is ideological rape of all women," she believes. "If it's not OK [to do this kind of sexual expose] for a man, it's not OK for a woman."

How valid are such "principles" when caught red-handed-and-rear-ended on film? And who says it's not OK for a man? Gary Hart and Bill Clinton might well argue the point. But never mind -- that's her firm belief and the film's pretext.

"One thing you wouldn't want is a woman with her finger on the button who isn't getting laid," she says flippantly to Runyon. He is not amused and soon escalates the scandal by leaking the undocumented rumor that she was paid for her erotic services.

Still no denial or explanation from the contender. Still greater rage from Runyon, now referring to her "degenerate filth" at the public hearings.

My favorite moments are the private hearings between Oldman and Bridges -- the running gag of the two of them smoking and eating and talking with food in their mouths all the time. The president orders a grilled cheese sandwich from the White House kitchen just before going down to a state dinner. He summons "swing-vote" freshman congressman Christian Slater and delivers his whole arm-twisting, hardsell pitch while holding a shark sandwich on a plate.

But by the final reel, with the help of soaring background music, this affable Prez will metamorphose from near-buffoon to Mr. Smith and Mr. Deeds combined.

A few little constitutional quibbles: Can the House subpoena a nominee's husband's ex-wife (Mariel Hemingway) and force her to give details of the divorce? Can the president appear and personally demand an immediate vote?

Pedantry aside, "The Contender's" heart is in the right place, and its three stars -- Allen, Bridges and Oldman -- are a joy to watch. Serious White House films of the '70s ("All the President's Men," "The Candidate," "Parallax View") have largely given way to presidential satires like "Dave." Director Rod Lurie's entry represents a return to the serious -- if more far- than near-fetched -- kind.

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