The fall movie season seems to be headed into a time warp landing us back in the late fifties and early sixties. First Boaz Yakin does a Stanley Kramer turn with the integrationist sports melodrama “Remember the Titans,” which is rather like “The Defiant Ones” (1958) with football helmets instead of convict chains. Now Rod Lurie returns us to the sort of trashy political intrigue that Allen Drury dished out in his novel “Advise and Consent,” transformed into a solemn but silly film by Otto Preminger in 1962.
Mr. Lurie seems to have a particular love for the genre: his first feature was “Deterrence” (1999), a limp little updating of “Fail Safe” (1964) in which an accidental U.S. prsident had to respond to an Iraqi nuclear attack while snowbound in a diner during a campaign trip; crammed with nattering political cronies, phony crises and a preposterous twist ending, it attempted to be a homage but ended up just a pallid copy. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with being drawn to a pulpish brand of picture and emulating its spirit–after all Francois Truffaut (like Mr. Lurie a former film critic–Lurie worked at KABC in L.A. before taking up the camera) embraced the devices of Hollywood film noir in such pictures as “Shoot the Piano Player” (1960). But Lurie, unhappily, is no Truffaut; instead of transcending the conventions of the cinematic category he’s adopted, he merely repeats them, but at an even higher pitch than in the original. So “The Contender” mimics “Advise and Consent” in centering on the sleazy partisan machinations that follow upon a controversial presidential appointment, but, in keeping with our more permissive age, it piles on the sexual elements, emphasizes the conspiratorial side and adds a feminist component to boot. The result, despite its pretensions to be about issues and principles, is nothing but a slick, empty potboiler whose sensationalistic underpinnings make it–if you’ll pardon the pun on its creator’s name–positively lurid. By the time the movie ends it’s far exceeded the comparatively sedate atmosphere of Preminger’s picture and wandered into the far more hysterical, over-the-top regions that characterized post-Watergate extravangances like the hilariously overwrought 1977 miniseries of John Ehrlichman’s “Washington: Behind Closed Doors.”
“The Contender” focuses on the nomination of Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) for the vacant post of vice president by chief executive Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges). The nomination is vehemently opposed by nefarious Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), the chair of the committee that will consider the appointment, who, as it turns out, will resort to the most underhanded and duplicitous dealing to derail confirmation. As we watch the jockeying over the hearings, with all their schemes and counter-schemes, a voice of reason and fairness is provided by a callow young representative named Reginald Webster (doesn’t the moniker alone reek of New England rectitude?) who initially opposes Hanson but comes to deplore Runyon’s methods.
The kernel of the case against the lady senator turns out to be, naturally enough, a youthful sexual indiscretion (the same was true of the pressure put on poor Brig Anderson in Drury’s book, of course): it seems that during a college sorority rush, Hanson is supposed to have gotten nekkid and done bad things with a bevy of frat boys–and, this being 2000, there’s even videotape to prove it. While Machiavellian manuevering proceeds both in the Congress and the White House over the scandal, our heroine takes the high road–dismissing the matter as an irrelevancy and simply refusing to discuss it. Her friends are dismayed and her foes emboldened; however can she survive such an onslaught?
The answers Lurie provides to all the contrivances he’s created are actually pretty silly, and the big denouement he fashions is quite absurd. A subplot involving the aspirations of a squeaky-clean governor played by William Peterson to snatch the vice-presidential nod is especially incredible, as is the notion that one stem-winding presidential address could turn the tide in his candidate’s favor–especially one who, we learn late in the picture, is an Ohioan who has not only switched from the Republican to the Democratic party–after, however, having voted to impeach President Clinton–but is also a self-admitted atheist who’s pro-choice, pro-gun control, against capital punishment but–as compensation, one supposes–in favor of a strong national defense! Anyone who has the slightest inkling of how politics actually works in this day and age will find most of “The Contender” so far removed from reality as to be either a simplistic fairy-tale (“Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington,” perhaps) or a parody. Unfortunately, Lurie’s approach is so doggedly literal and earnest that the latter seems highly implausible.
An able cast wrings what it can from the material. The person who will probably be most lauded is Allen–indeed, one can already glimpse an Oscar nomination in her future (almost a given, in yet another year of poor female roles). But to be honest her performance is hardly outstanding. She does her usual put-upon shtick decently enough, but there’s very little verve or shading to her work here; she walks through most of the picture with her lips puritanically pursed as though she were still playing the wrongly-accused housewife in “The Crucible.” Most of the men, on the other hand, offer the sort of lip-smacking turns that such shallow stuff demands. Bridges, whose character may be compared to Clinton, is actually playing a Lyndon Johnson type, a big, burly glad-handing guy who revels in the exercise of power and can turn mean on a dime, but still has core beliefs, and he mugs through the role with shameless exuberance. Oldman, with hair balding and looking emaciated, is dependably malevolent, and Petersen gives a silky sheen to his photogenic but shallow governor. Sam Elliott and Saul Rubinek lend their personas–the one scowling and authoritative, the other fidgety and oily–to the stock roles of presidential advisors, and Philip Baker Hall has another nifty cameo as Hanson’s ex-politico dad. Slater, on the other hand, is flat and morose as the principled young congressman–but that’s the fate of actors forced to play the straight-shooting good guy in a sea of colorfully larger-than-life schemers. Physically the production is professional enough, although some of the settings have a peculiarly claustrophobic feel; that’s especially true in the sequence depicting President Evans’ address to Congress–the hall looks nothing like the real thing, seeming small and cramped like the college lecture-room it very well might be. (With all of DreamWorks’ ties to the Clinton White House, couldn’t something more mposing have been arranged?)
So if you feel a need for a wallow in the fabulous world of imagined Washington sleaze, “The Contender,” with its utterly shameless pandering to all our worst instincts about politics, should satisfy it. And provided that you’re willing to accept it in old-fashioned soapoperatic terms, as a glossy tale of a woman wronged by a system instead of a man, you might find its overwrought sensationalism at least amusing. But don’t try to read anything meaningful into its melodramatic contrivances or any depth into its easy answers.