That Championship Season

The Contender rocks, Billy Elliot jetes

The Contenderopens with an act of literally splashy heroism that anyone with a healthy dose of Beltway paranoia might consider a carefully engineered career booster. Governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), a telegenic front-runner for vice president of the United States—the incumbent has obligingly expired—tries to save a drowning woman whose car has hurtled into the water right over his head and that of a journalist with whom, as luck would have it, he's peacefully fishing while declaiming his readiness to die for civil rights. Summoned to the White House, the governor is crushed to learn that in fact he has been spun off because, as his genial president (Jeff Bridges) regretfully puts it, "We don't want the appearance of another Chappaquiddick."

Out goes Hathaway in favor of a candidate who fits into the Washington Weltanschauung about as well as the tooth fairy. Not only is Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) a woman, but she also is a hereditary Republican who has crossed to the Democrats. Worse yet, she defected on matters of principle, which makes her doubly suspect in a town where any departure from the venal is regarded as a sign of mental fragility. If that weren't enough to damn her, Hanson got on the wrong side of her adoptive party by voting for the impeachment of Bill Clinton, a decision that returns to haunt her when her powerful Republican nemesis (Gary Oldman) leaks reports of tawdry sexual secrets just in time for her confirmation hearings.

Rod Lurie, the Los Angeles film critic and entertainment reporter who wrote and directed this cheeky little number, claims inspiration from political thrillers of the '70s. In fact, The Contender, juiced as it is by a lively friction between muscular relish for the unsavory mechanics of Beltway politics on the one hand and a fervently liberal idealism on the other, is a more rosy-cheeked creature by far than The Parallax View or All The President's Men could ever have been. What Lurie has made is The West Wing without the constraining niceties of prime time—and none the worse for it if you believe, as Lurie clearly does, that American democracy, sorely compromised by media and pols alike, is in serious but not hopeless condition. The model is far from Clintonian: the president, a wily gamesman played with brio by Bridges, keeps his cards close to his chest (it's never made clear whether feminism or opportunism guides his choice of Hanson) in ways that Clinton would find impossible, and resembles our incumbent in one respect only—his close relationship to his chef. Clinton himself is openly referenced (a bold move) as an example of how not to respond when faced with steamy allegations about sexual and moral misconduct.

Dedicated to "our daughters," The Contender was written for Joan Allen. Her porcelain reserve is perfect for a woman whose steadiness enables her, as Claude Rains famously cautioned Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, to stick to her guns without firing. Hanson is no wimp, though, and hardly the ramrod-virgin cardboard-feminist typical of so many male-directed movies. A patrician with demotic leanings, she's also cleverly portrayed as a robustly sexual creature who, when she gets the presidential call, is deep into a midday screw—with her husband, of course. Hanson has a subtle working knowledge of how the Beltway game is played, but though she's freaked by endless media replays of old photographs purporting to show her having a very good time at a college frat party, she draws the line at public invasion of her privacy and resolutely refuses an opportunity to invade that of her attackers.

In real-life Washington, such mannerly restraint—the refusal to play on grounds of self-respect—would get a candidate (especially a female candidate) crucified in a minute, and Lurie has invented an enjoyably weasely adversary in Shelly Runyon, the Clausewitz-quoting, old-school Republican who pulls every dirty trick in the book to derail the hearings of this pro-choice Democrat. In politics, there's nothing so dangerous as a man of rigidly black-and-white principle who believes that his ends justify any means possible. Though Gary Oldman can do dangerous in his sleep, one hardly recognizes him in this balding, bespectacled little newt, you might say, who manipulates the press with one hand and the pols with the other.

Lurie understands that people, especially political people, have multiple reasons for what they do, and it's that murkiness of motive, unpacked by the elite B-list ensemble of actors he's put together, that makes the adroit buildup and conduct of the hearings such busy fun. While Runyon works his black magic and Hanson digs in behind her dignity, a petite FBI agent with a style redolent of Columbo infused with Barbie (the doll, with a dash of Klaus) is quietly doing her job checking into Hanson's past—and then some, in ways that provide the deft denouement of this immensely entertaining, and in its savvy way, inspiring movie. For Lurie argues correctly that nobody's life—let alone Hanson's, let alone Clinton's—would hold up under this kind of scandalmongering scrutiny and that in any case private behavior is none of the public's business. Judging from Clinton's narrow squeak past impeachment, Americans broadly agree, but they've been slower to compute Hanson's insight that where private life meets public policy in hypocrisy—like prosecuting adultery in the military while cheating on your own wife—Clinton is "not guilty, but responsible." Through Laine Hanson, Lurie writes a manual for a viable and honorable politics, in which a strong sense of what's right (well, leftish) coupled with a streetwise attention to the dodges and feints of those who govern, can—as one hears rather too frequently—really make a difference.

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