[Written for Film.com]
With Aaron Sorkin running around holding an armful of Emmys and basking in the love of a nationwide TV audience for creating NBC’s “The West Wing,” the idea of releasing a lesser political drama on movie screens right now is risky business. The Contender indeed looks narrow and one-dimensional by comparison to the layered drama and comedy of Sorkin’s show, though this new film by former critic Rod Lurie (Deterrence) does help clarify what it is that Sorkin does so well simply because Lurie isn’t doing it here.
The film’s premise, while initially promising, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Joan Allen plays a United States senator, Laine Hanson, who is tapped by a sitting president (Jeff Bridges) to replace his deceased vice-president. It’s a bold move, all right, offering the job to a woman, and the right-wing congressman who will preside over her confirmation, Shelly Runyon (an unrecognizable Gary Oldman), intends to prevent it.
Wielding evidence of Hanson’s participation in a collegiate orgy many moons ago, Runyon plans to discredit her. What to do? Caught between the White House’s preparations for a bare-knuckles fight and Runyon’s machinations, Hanson has to dig down deep for courage. In an age when American politicians are scripted and handled and spun, and image has become untrustworthy to a cynical post-Nixon, post-Clinton electorate, the challenge to Hanson is to decide whether ’tis nobler to fight fire with fire or take the high road and possibly lose.
It’s the same dilemma that has been explored in many a political film, including Primary Colors, The Best Man, The Man, and the Sorkin-scripted The American President. Yet the airless, chamber-drama feel of The Contender is less compelling than those earlier features, partly because Lurie’s intense, microscopic fascination with the forces at work, and with the stature of the adversaries and allies involved, seems disconnected from the larger world. It ‘s Washington intrigue in a vacuum, and the made-for-television look—lots of closeups, two-shots, meat-and-potatoes direction—underscores the story’s inside-the-Beltway limits.
More significantly, the salient details of the story exist in that same vacuum. While the wonderful Joan Allen invests Hanson with loads of dignity, giving credence to the character’s complaint that Runyon’s slander on her private life is inherently sexist, Lurie is still counting on the audience to buy some questionable notions. Is it possible, for instance, that Hanson could have come so far in politics without previous rumblings about her past? Would anybody really care—to use real-life Congressman Henry Hyde’s description about his own long-ago affair—about a middle-aged politician’s truly “youthful indiscretion”?
Hell, if the late Sonny Bono could hold office, everybody should have political coverage. More seriously, the public’s complex view of Clinton, his prosecutors, and Republicans in general during the impeachment proved that Americans can indeed walk and chew gum at the same time. Lurie’s premise that a conservative persecutor of a good woman’s character, based on such a flimsy charge, would wash with a predominantly sensible people may be provocative, but it’s also terribly strained.