The Contender” isn’t authentic. It isn’t even credible. It falls just short of preposterous. Now that we have that out of the way, let me say that it is thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable.
The Vice President has died and the President (Jeff Bridges) has to appoint a new one, someone who will underscore his legacy and secure swift confirmation from the Senate. He bypasses the popular Governor Hathaway (William Peterson) in favor of a Senator from Ohio named Laine Hansen (Joan Allen).
As the phone rings, the President on the other end waiting to invite her to the White House, Laine is having an enthusiastic sexual encounter. But it isn’t too spicy after all — it’s with her husband.
Laine, a Democrat, has a lot of support, even from her former-governor father, a Republican. But she has some powerful enemies, including the conservative Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), a Hathaway supporter, who has managed to make himself chairman of the confirmation committee. And when allegations that Laine had sexual relations with several boys at a college fraternity party surface, he leaks them to a Drudge-like website and asks her to respond. Laine refuses, saying that she will not discuss her private life and that there is a double standard because no man would have been asked to respond to such a question.
It is a lot of fun to watch the Washington wheels turn and the spinners spin. Writer-director Rod Lurie (“Deterrence”) has been around Washington enough to get the characters and the vocabulary right. Echoes of the Clarence Thomas and Clinton impeachment hearings give the story some sizzle. Director and stars give the story their best shot, and it moves along briskly. Allen and Bridges give Oscar-quality performances, and supporting players like Sam Elliott, Christian Slater and newcomer Kathryn Morris add depth and sparkle. Oldman, who also co-produced, is almost unrecognizable under a Pappy-Yokum-style hairpiece. He manages the right mix of menace and fervor. If the final turns are a bit Capra-esque, it is still hard to fault the movie for wanting Laine to end up happily, because by then we do, too.
Parents should know that the movie has frank discussions about the allegations against Laine, flashbacks to the fraternity party, and a clothed but explicit sex scene. People use strong language.
Families who see this movie should talk about how much it is fair to expect politicians to reveal to us and how much it is fair to expect from them. They may also want to talk about the challenge presented to Laine back in college and how she responded and whether she is right in saying that a double standard was applied. Families should talk about Laine’s comment that principles are most important when things get tough.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the two all-time best movies about politics, “The Best Man” and “Advise and Consent,” both starring Henry Fonda. They may also like the more recent “The Seduction of Joe Tynan.