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By the people, for the media

by Kaori Shoji
The Contender
Rating: * * * * Director: Rod Lurie Running time: 127 minutes Language: English Now showing at Marunouchi Piccadilly and other theaters

You see “The Contender” and you realize the level of puritanism in the United States, at least in terms of politics as presented by the media for public consumption. Not that we need a movie to remind us of this — it wasn’t too long ago that the private antics of a respected president were so horribly publicized. And just when we had almost forgotten about that little incident, “The Contender” is here to knock over the gravestone and drag out the corpse all in the name of good entertainment. It even mentions Bill’s name a few times, as in lines like: “Let’s remember what happened to Clinton. He got through it all right.”

Mike Binder and Joan Allen in “The Contender”

The centerpiece, however, is a woman, and for the record, Mr. Chairman, she doesn’t smoke cigars. Joan Allen plays a senator who is handpicked by the powers in the Oval Office to become vice president. Opposing forces in the Capitol seek to destroy her nomination with a salacious sex scandal. For weeks, the nation tunes into the hearings that accuse her of awful things she did or didn’t do with one or more sexual partners. Masterfully executed and excellently performed, the only big flaw in “The Contender” seems to be that this came after the Clinton-Monica thing and, therefore, we’re pretty much immune to all the gratuitous details. After all, theirs is a hard act to follow. Anything that comes on its heels is in danger of being yawned at: “So politicians have sex. What’s new?”

So director/writer Rod Lurie went on a gamble. He tailor-made the story specifically for Allen and engineered it so that whether “The Contender” soars or remains hovering a couple of feet from the ground will depend on Allen’s power to convince and captivate. Lurie’s bet was that people will sit in their seats in complete enthrallment.

And he was right. In fact, at this point Allen is probably inundated with offers to run for governor. Or perhaps she’s already become president of some posh, hip women’s college. Lurie’s script is designed around her personality, drawing from all the things that define Allen and Allen only: guts, dignity, and sharpness balanced with frailness and femininity. Not to mention that she oozes good pedigree and really, really looks like she graduated from Harvard Law.

Such an actress does not let a director down. Allen grabbed the part and sprinted away. She comes out the winner without missing a step or losing her breath and makes it all look effortless.

Senator Laine Hanson (Allen) is an ace politician and “a real groovy chick” to boot. President Evans (Jeff Bridges) eyes her for the vice presidency, a position vacated three weeks before by the death of the current VP. He has two years left in his term and wants to put a woman in his administration, as a “swan song” to his work in the Oval Office.

Laine accepts his offer with enthusiasm but knows this will not be easy. Already, opposing forces in the forms of Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) and Reggie Webster (Christian Slater) are plotting to obliterate her nomination, and they’re peeling off kid gloves at the speed of light. Runyon wastes no time in excavating an incident from Laine’s freshman year in college: At a frat party, she was photographed having sex with two men at the same time. Runyon posts the photo on the Net, then calls in witnesses and exposes Laine as “unfit” for the “high moral requirements demanded of a vice president.”

Laine however, refuses to play the game. She remains silent about the entire affair and never budges an inch from her sole statement: “These accusations are beneath my dignity to answer.” Peeved, Runyon continues to bomb her with intensely private (and politically irrelevant) questions, and the media has a grand time publicizing their heavily one-sided verbal jousting.

On a talk show where Laine was supposedly invited to give her views on foreign policy, the station tricks her into a one-on-one with one of the men who claim to have been there at the frat party. Lurie skillfully draws out the irony of a political drama deprived of politics: The burning question is whether Laine did or didn’t. Her capabilities as a leader are totally ignored.

Oldman goes out of his way to play the closet-fascist manipulator, this morally upstanding bigot who gets so tiresome, halfway through the movie you just want to cover his face with a black hankie (“Rest in peace already, will ya?”). Or you may just want to mentally superimpose your boss’s face over Runyon’s and enjoy a huge catharsis when he finally gets his, 15 minutes before the closing credits.

But it’s Allen’s movie, start to finish. The way she looks Runyon in the eye as he unleashes his silly chauvinist venom should be freeze-framed and hung in a museum: “Icy Disdain.”