Washington goes too Hollywood

Friday, October 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Michael Janusonis / The Providence (R.I.) Journal

The Contender takes place in the Hollywood fantasy version of Washington, D.C., that moviemakers love.

It's the one where venal skulduggery is pitted against high-minded moral rectitude, a trend that began with Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939. This is the Washington where everyone digs in their heels and refuses to compromise, even if everything could be resolved with a simple statement of the truth. The one that exists in a neat little vacuum where there's no room for a snoopy media intent on sniffing out a story. The one where all the action takes place behind closed doors.

Despite strong performances by Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges, The Contender is rarely convincing. Writer-director Rod Lurie, a former journalist, should have known better.

Lurie's plot goes straight to the bone, however. When the sitting vice president dies, President Jackson Evans (Bridges) handpicks Ohio Sen. Laine Hanson (Allen) as his successor. This surprises everyone, especially Gov. Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), a rising star who thought he had the inside track.

Laine is a plain-spoken, straightforward ultra-liberal Democrat who is pro-choice, anti-gun, pro-affirmative action. She's also openly atheistic . . . and self-righteous to boot. Oh sure. Just the kind of person who'd be chosen by a president to fill the second highest position in the land.

Well, she is that person in Lurie's farfetched script. But all those attributes rankle the even more self-righteous Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman). He practically spits fire when he thinks about Laine. Unfortunately for Laine's chances, Runyon heads the House committee that must vote on whether to approve her appointment.

Soon he has uncovered unsavory charges about her loose-living past, complete with photos of what purportedly are Laine having wild sex at a drunken college frat party orgy. Even rumors of prostitution begin to surface on that paragon of misinformation and half-truths, the Internet.

The Contender takes off from there, spewing outrageous dialogue that at least makes the film an unexpected howler.

Laine digs in and stands her ground, primly contending that her private life is nobody's business but her own. I guess she didn't serve in Congress during the Clinton impeachment brouhaha. In light of that, The Contender looks woefully out of date.

Allen plays Laine with stiff-upper-lip assuredness, but after a while she seems to be made of impenetrable steel . . . a woman who always takes the high road. She's too self-righteous to be true. Even when she sees a chance to save herself and set everything straight, she does not. This is very odd in a city where compromise is the name of the game. Laine may be in the right, but she's making it very difficult for the president and his staff.

Oldman is just as strongwilled and determined as the congressman, but eventually we discover chinks in Runyon's armor. His bitter wife even visits Laine to blab too many family secrets that could wound Runyon's campaign against her. Sure. Doesn't every political wife in Washington travel to the opposition to betray secrets? But then Laine, because she's so fairminded, refuses to use these secrets as ammunition to save herself. Sure.

Bridges, probably modeling his character after Bill Clinton, is an affable, let's-muddle-through-this kind of guy, a charismatic figure. You may wish The Contender were more about President Evans and his dilemma in discovering that his vice presidential candidate may not be the icy moralist she seems to be. I don't know. Don't they have people checking these things before making nominations?

Conveniently, from the script's standpoint, no reporter tries to dig for the facts, something that's especially curious because writer-director Lurie was once a reporter. The only behind-the-scenes maneuvering is done by a too-perky FBI agent on a fishing expedition for the president's staff.

Bridges is a breath of fresh air, however, the most realistic and human character in the film. He believes that the best thing about being president is being able to phone the White House kitchen day or night and order anything he craves. It's the movie's running gag and Bridges makes merry with it.

Also good is Christian Slater's Democratic Congressman Webster, the soul of a man willing to make his name by working with the Republican Runyon to destroy Laine. He's tentative at first, a conniver who slowly comes to see the consequences of his actions and to have second thoughts. Slater makes him a man with feet of clay who is tempted by power.

As more secrets are uncovered, The Contender turns into an overblown soap opera, complete with a grandstanding presidential speech that shows off Bridges's effortless talents. It's designed to make Americans feel good about themselves. Think James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In the end, however, The Contender is simply a fairy tale.


The Contender

Starring : Gary Oldman, Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, William Petersen, Philip Baker Hall, Saul Rubinek, Sam Elliott.

Producers: A DreamWorks Pictures release written and directed by Rod Lurie.

Rated : R, contains sex, profanity, nudity, adult themes.

Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.