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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Contender

Political potboiler ripples with tension

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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October 15, 2000 -- "The Contender" is a movie that on the surface seems to give the viewer a look behind the scenes at some real hardball politics in Washington, D.C. The fact that the politics in the movie are Hollywood-style politics, not current Washington politics does not tarnish the masterful way this film is crafted.

Hollywood politics are very evident in this film. The sentiments expressed by the candidate are too liberal to get one elected anywhere but Massachusetts, and then only if your last name is Kennedy. At one point the vice presidential contender says she wants all the guns out of all the homes in America. While that would be an excellent preventative measure for accidental shootings, no politician alive today would be foolish enough to utter such a statement. There is, after all, the N.R.A. to contend with.

The vice presidential contender is Laine Hanson (superbly played by Joan Allen of "Pleasantville"). The daughter of a powerful retired Congressman, she resembles TV newswoman Cokie Roberts, who has a similar political pedigree. Hanson has been selected by President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges of "Simpatico") as his vice presidential nominee to replace his former V.P. who recently died. He bypassed favored contender Jack Hathaway (William L. Petersen of "The Skulls") because he feels Hathaway is too ambitious. Hathaway has recently gained notoriety because of his courage in trying to rescue a woman from a submerged car. He dives from his fishing boat to try to rescue the woman from the bottom of a river.

The choice of Hanson is not even popular with the president's staff, including chief of staff Kermit Newman (Sam Elliott "The Big Lebowski") and Jerry Tolliver (Saul Rubinek), or with some members of the president's party, including Reginald Webster (Christian Slater of "Broken Arrow"), who uses his dislike for Hanson as a way to get on the selection committee. The chairman of the selection committee Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman of "Lost in Space") jumps at the chance to appoint Webster, a Democrat, to his committee to make the committee makeup appear to be fair, when it really isn't.

Runyon doesn't like the idea of appointing a woman to the vice presidency (what happens if she gets pregnant? he wonders) to begin with, so he looks for ammunition to back up his prejudices. He finds it in a report that Hanson, while a college freshman, had sex with several partners at a wild party. He also finds out other damaging information about her personal life, stuff the FBI or White House investigations should have picked up, but didn't.

Runyon uses this information to start turning up the pressure on Hanson, trying to make her quit. Hanson's position is that her personal life is personal. It has nothing to do with her public life in politics. Runyon is utterly convinced that her alleged sexual escapade makes her a traitor somehow, although the connection between patriotism and sex is never explained. Of course this is somewhat similar to the Republican witch hunt into President Bill Clinton's sexual fling with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton's impeachment is mentioned in the movie. The other obvious comparison is to the hearings by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, right down to the famous line uttered in those hearings, ": "At long last, sir, have you no sense of decency?"

The battle of wills between Runyon and Hanson is spectacular. The tension in their scenes is very high. The battle spills out into the hot button issue of abortion. There's a very good scene between Runyon, who is anti abortion and Hanson, who is pro abortion as they bristle at each other over the emotional issue. It's pretty silly when you think about it, however. Imagine a Democratic president proposing an anti-abortion vice presidential candidate. It ain't going to happen. It is as unlikely as having a pro-choice Republican in a party leadership position. Look what happened to Al Simpson. He got aced out by Trent Lott because Simpson was pro-choice. It is a party litmus test. Runyon, being a good politician, ought to know that, and he also ought to know that debating the abortion issue is useless, the two sides being entrenched as they are. Still, emotions run high in this scene, despite another intrusion of Hollywood politics into what is supposed to be Washington politics.

What is really fascinating in the movie is the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering, the strong-arm tactics, the dirty tricks. Runyon imparts a bit of political wisdom to Webster at one point in the movie. He tells him the voters did not elect him to be impartial. They elected Webster for his opinions and his passion for politics, Runyon says. In other words it is perfectly acceptable not to play fair. Both sides dive into the dirt with gusto. "Find me something on him, something sexual!" roars Chief of Staff Newman at one point, anxious to get some dirt on Runyon. The ending of the film does not quite match the tone of the rest of it, but it is O.K.

Oldman and Allen give Oscar-calibre performances in the powerful drama, and it is great to see Sam Elliott back in a high-profile dramatic role again. Christian Slater, usually a pretty edgy actor, gives a very low-key performance, and the very capable Jeff Bridges seems miscast as the president. It almost looks like he was in a different movie, a comedy. He doesn't seem to bring the intensity to his role that the other actors do. The production values of this film are very high, with great photography, editing, sets, production design and location shots. This film could be up for an Oscar. It rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2000 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)