The Contender
Director: Rod Lurie. Cast: Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, Sam Elliott, William Petersen, Mike Binder, Saul Rubinek, Robin Thomas, Philip Baker Hall, Mariel Hemingway. Screenplay: Rod Lurie.

Joan Allen resides, for me, in the small category of working actresses—others include Angela Bassett, Anne Heche, and Kristin Scott Thomas—who is so exquisitely talented and so equally underused that I make a point of seeing all of her films in their opening weekend. Actors, as we know, are usually granted access to choice roles only based on their box office receipts, and I am willing to sit through dreck like How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Six Days, Seven Nights if it means studio heads might finally take these women seriously. (I know my matinée dollars are only a droplet of a drop, but it's my version of paying it forward.) Allen has rarely been in films as inconsequential as these tropical parfaits, but The Contender held an unusual degree of promise: a film that not only starred Allen, but was written for her, and rounded out with forceful actors like Gary Oldman and Jeff Bridges who could really hit the ball back.

Imagine my shock and distress when the fall season's biggest hope for a genuine actress showcase and feminist narrative turned out to be its most dramatically sludgy and thoughtlessly sexist potboiler—at least, I hope the sexism was thoughtless. Allen emerges as unscathed as possible, the strength and elegance of her acting almost rendering her invincible from the screenplay's assaults on her dignity. But why should an actress be in the position of fighting off a script that was intended to provide her with a triumph? The ultimate proof of what Gore and Lieberman call the "coarsening of our culture" is that The Contender, which both men are likely to cite as hopeful counterevidence, merely hides its misogyny under an unconvincing veneer of liberal fantasy. With that idiot despot George W keeping pace in the polls, the last thing we need is a film that shows Democrats unwittingly taking pride in the worst sort of vapid grandstanding.

Allen stars as Laine Hanson, a Democratic Senator tapped by Bridges' incumbent President to replace a vice president who has died two weeks before the movie opens. The early sequences are persuasive and tense, especially after a seemingly incongruous ten minutes centered on the man America expected to get the Veep nod. Writer-director Rod Lurie, a former film critic for Los Angeles magazine, does tend to show off his own literate dialogue, but at least the dialogue is literate, and the narrative propels strongly through some itchy behind-the-scenes meetings, as when Hanson's husband (Robin Thomas) is asked by the President's staff to lay low during her confirmation hearings. They believe the public considers the male partners of powerful women to be "sissies," which is to say, they think these men are sissies (and that "sissies" are very bad things for men to be.)

As it turns out, and as everyone pretty much realizes, Hanson and the President have a lot more to worry about than double-standards of spouse perception. Shelly Runyon, Oldman's character, is a dogged hard-line conservative who bridles almost instantly at the news that a woman might become America's second most powerful citizen. Again, as in the scene with Hanson's husband, Lurie smartly portrays how intelligent, savvy politicians rationalize practical considerations and "public opinion" to justify their own instinctual prejudices. Runyon jockeys successfully to head the Congressional subcommittee reviewing Hanson's qualifications. It couldn't be clearer that he will use whatever weapons he has to block her appointment, so he practically bursts through his skin when verbal and photographic evidence, albeit undefinitive in both counts, begins to suggest that Hanson involved herself in ostentatious, multiple-partner sex orgies in college.

In the post-Lewinsky era, Runyon knows (and the movie won't let us forget) that sexual indiscretion is the surest way, perhaps the only way, to indict a politician in the court of public regard. Hanson is appalled by the emergence of rumors and photos alike, not because she feels embarrassed or hijacked but because she considers the entire issue of her sexual life to be irrelevant to her credentials as a public leader. That conviction prompts her to remain unflinchingly silent about the allegations, neither confirming nor denying the reports, and thereby choosing to answer her own principles instead of the zeal of her attackers, the curiosity of her constituents, or the frustration of the President, who counted on her confirmation as a positive PR-bonanza and a career-capper for an administration that will otherwise lack any real legacy.

From this point, The Contender styles itself as a sort of moral thriller, a Will She Or Won't She centered not around sex acts but around speech acts: will Laine extricate herself from the controversy, which seems far harder to endure than even the aftermath of a full verification? For a while, the film is tasteful enough to provide no glimpse of the would-be incriminating photos, which apparently feature the back of a woman who looks like Laine, but no clear view of her face. More importantly, the film remains as silent as Laine does about the truth of Runyon's story. The Contender shares the certainty of its protagonist that public servants deserve private lives, to which our access should be forbidden and our standards irrelevant.

Unfortunately, however, the circumstance of Laine's silence, however "dignified," enables The Contender's men to talk non-stop, and what pours from their mouths, with no discernible discomfort on the movie's part, transforms the film from pointed political drama into sordid straight-male speculations. The screenplay abounds freely with words like "gang-bang," and one sympathetic character reports the testimony of one ostensible witness who saw Laine "dripping with cum" after her multiple-partner romp. The casual crudeness of the language, combined with its increasingly incessant echo through the film, reveal The Contender to be less interested in Laine's mute integrity than with the spectacular possibilities behind that silence. Not just the writing but the editing and cinematography keep inviting us to wonder what Joan Allen, she of the patrician features and professional demeanor, would look like in a variety of vividly described "compromising positions." In other words, the film wants it both ways with Laine: her reticence makes her a female double-ideal, both because she rises above an ugly conversation and because her silence permits the ugliness to continue among men who have nothing better to talk about.

Allen works hard, and beautifully, to create a confident, charismatic woman whose sexuality, like her intelligence, eloquence, and moral resolve, is a vibrant and indispensable trait of her character. The film, by contrast, increasingly proves unable to imagine female sexuality as anything but troubling, even monstrous. When we aren't being hammered with another gratuitous description of Laine's reported indiscretion, the film hauls in unnecessary characters like Shelly Runyon's wife to cement the relationship between femininity and nastiness. Mrs. Runyon, outraged at her husband's fanatical dogmatism, arrives at Laine's house to disclose the secret of an abortion she had early in her marriage but never described to Shelly. The plot doesn't need this contrivance, which is evidenced by the fact that it does virtually nothing with it. The point of the scene is not to make the movie's plot more complicated but thicker with repugnance—we are asked to recoil from a seditious woman willing to offer her own bodily suffering as a political tool for an opponent.

The script also lurches to include the testimony of a onetime friend of Hanson's, played by Mariel Hemingway, who describes to Congress how Laine stole her husband from under her nose. Again, a film about a woman's refusal to be ashamed abruptly changes course so that Laine can sob with regret about an incident that wouldn't be necessary if the film were only concerned with the ethics of its central storyline. As we head into the final half-hour, the film seems to lose trust altogether in its own ethical paragon, so Lurie attempts to redeem Laine by making everyone around her look terrible. The most insane case of this levelling of his own cast revolves around Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), the governor originally thought to be a shoo-in for the vice presidency, whose extravagantly developed venality constitutes the year's least plausible plotline to date. I performed less suspension of disbelief at X-Men, but The Contender needs Jack—whose wife, predictably, is a full-throttle shrew—to verify that damaged-goods Laine is still the lesser of two evils.

This frenzy to salvage Laine from the film's own abasement of her results in its single most dastardly scene, in which (SPOILER!) she privately tells the President the truth about her collegiate sex history. I won't bother telling you what she says because, reminder, it's not supposed to matter! The fact that Laine's confession arrives in a private scene with only the President, while the public remains utterly ignorant of her history, verifies that her speech is meant not to affect the plot or console its characters but to console us, as though we are as hypocritically demanding of Laine's "innocence" as the film turns out to be. (Oops, guess I let the cat out of the bag after all!) Meanwhile, Bridges' President, who the actor seems to realize is an arrogant prick, is turned by the screenplay into an unqualified hero, a man who seizes on Hanson's silence to grab the mike back into his own hand. Not since Amistad, another "liberal" film about social double-standards that finally lets white men do all the talking, has a movie climaxed in such an indulgent, self-congratulatory speech . . . though at least Anthony Hopkins' fifth-act oration made sense. Bridges' eleventh-hour rhetoric is a bunch of dithery hullabulloo about cynical compromises, political hypocrisy, and the virus of sexism, as though The Contender didn't feature plenty of evidence of all these qualities.

What if Rod Lurie had tossed out all of the conspiracy stuff, the adultery stuff, the purple rhetoric, and all the other garbagy garnish, and just made a film about a powerful, successful woman asserting her own right to private pleasure, and pleasurable privacy? Why does it remain so impossible for a film of such overheated righteousness to stick by its own terms? Already in American film history, the phrase most closely associated with "contender" is "could have been." This phenomenally ambivalent film, for which my hopes were so high, is the "could have been" movie of the year. Grade: C

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Joan Allen
Best Supporting Actor: Jeff Bridges

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Drama): Joan Allen
Best Supporting Actor: Jeff Bridges

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