Contender, The

Rated: R
Stars: Joan Allen,
Jeff Bridges, William Petersen

Politics was never presented in a seamier fashion than it is here. It’s a Clinton deja vu, only this time it’s the president’s vice presidential nominee who’s taking all the heat.

Joan Allen stars as Ohio Senator Laine Hanson, who has just been nominated by President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) to replace his recently deceased vice president. He names her over Gov. Jack Hathaway (William Petersen) who appears to be the top contender of the moment. But, Hathaway is asked to step aside and let the first good choice for a woman v.p. proceed unscathed. She’s the perfect choice, attractive, married with a young son and has a supportive husband.

Almost as soon as Hanson’s is dropped, up crops charges of sexual deviateness from her past, replete with explicit photographs and damaging testimony. A major smear campaign is orchestrated by Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) who is an axe to grind with President Evans. It gets messier as time goes on and Runyon gets the support of an idealistic Representative named Webster (Christian Slater) who believes he is serving justice in bringing down a morally corrupt official in Hanson.

What you get from this film is how much of a chess game politics is, only one played with cheap nasty tricks and constant one-up-manship. Allen’s character is the principled one we would hope that all our politicians were like.

Look for high quality acting from a good cast, especially Oldman, who is nearly unrecognizable as a slimy, opportunistic Midwestern congressman. Allen, too is especially good, balancing her emotions during the endless attacks from Runyon’s camp. Bridges as the President is believable and adds some comic relief with his food fetish. He has one of the best rousing political speeches at the end of the movie that I’ve seen in a long time. And it’s nice to see Sam Elliott in a solid performance as presidential assistant Kermit Newman. The story is taut and interesting.

Lotta says the single most troubling aspect to this film is the depiction of how sordid politics is – all around – from how the president makes his decisions to how congressmen play their rough little games, and then we have to sit through rousing patriotic b.s. speeches. It really is a little hard to take.