CINEMA SIGNALS



Women's human rights in the Muslim World

. "The Contender"

Ten or fifteen minutes into this film and the thought occurred to me that this is, indeed, an adult movie. On three counts: One for the lurid and pornographic issue at the core of the story, two, for its 100% political subject matter and, third, its generally literate, verbal nature. Teens and younger would sensibly stay home -- they're not likely to care much about any of it.

But if you're a political junkie, don't wait. This is right up your alley and especially if you're a strongly partisan democrat. Point is, if this is a political drama between a president and an opposition House of Representatives, sides have to be taken by the writer. Here, more than sides are taken -- the nature of governmental combat of the last 8 years is used as a model for political behaviors, particularly the strategies employed by our law makers and leaders. It's as ideological as a Gore-Bush debate, and very one-sided, but as a piece of film writing, it's an accomplished undertaking.

It poses the question, not yet realized in all of U.S. history, what might happen if a vice president dies in office and the sitting president appoints a woman? And, what if that woman had dirt smeared all over her by her powerful enemies? And, what if she maintained -- and this is the theme of "The Contender" -- stoic silence in the face of the onslaught, on the grounds that questions about her past and personal life are totally inappropriate to the question of her qualifications for the high office to which she's been put in nomination?

Representative Laine Hanson is that contender and Joan Allen is luminous in her portrayal of this strong yet sensitive politician caught up in a maelstrom of innuendo and direct attack. You talk about dignity? See this film.

But, Allen isn't alone. In one of the strongest casts of the year, everyone involved is a standout. Furthermore, it seems to me that none of the principal actors have been in a previous film this year! That's almost a shocking realization but what it means to me is that this is a crew that has been unemployed too long. In these days of actors becoming overexposed, it's refreshing to see the wonderful Jeff Bridges, Sam Elliott, Christian Slater, Gary Oldman and William Petersen! Even Mariel Hemingway comes out of hiding for a minor but well done role.

Committee chairman Shelly Runyon (Oldman) leads the charge against the vice presidential nominee in a trademark role of political hypocrisy run amok. In its presentation here, however, with the vivid memories of recent political attacks, the villainy of his character seems to (intentionally) mirror one or two current members of Congress. Resisting him is a politically savvy president, Jackson Evans (Bridges), patterned after the young bright guy who inhabits the oval office now. Evans' machinations illustrate how certain expediencies make political sense even as they fly in the face of logic -- probably a fair depiction of reality. As a representation of strategy at the top, it's certainly not a complete portrait but for a two hour movie, it serves its purpose.

Representative Reginald Webster (Slater) is the fly in the democratic ointment who is as opposed to Hanson's appointment as the committee chairman himself and does great political damage to his own party's administration. His single-mindedness proves to be more a writer's tool for drama enhancement than political reality but it's well enough written to minimize too strong a critique. The character's presence does help to balance the political equation (some will say, "not enough").

William Petersen is right on the mark as Governor Jack Hathaway who is on the very short list in contention for the VP appointment but loses out to the woman. No governor I know of would do what he did (which won't be revealed here), but it's another strong portrayal by this outstanding actor. His fans -- of which I am one -- will be pleased.

There are small things that can be criticized. The assembly of the House (probably not intended as all of Congress) for the president's sharply worded speech summarizing what has been going on would not have resulted in unanimous applause (from both sides of the aisle) in a fairytale mischaracterization of "all is good in the end" as though that's how things wind up in Washington. And, the moment hardly needed symphonic guidance.

If anything, this is a movie created for the purpose of making political points -- mostly about the products of extremism. It's a film with an agenda, to be sure. Its strength derives from its timeliness and appropriateness to some political issues of our time, including the question of a woman in the White House. While I didn't get much of Laine Hanson's voting record or political stance on many issues, I'd get behind her for vice president in a non-partisan minute so long as she was Joan Allen (with Morgan Freeman for president). Which means, I suppose, that "The Contender" worked for me and, for that, kudos to the Israel-born Rod Lurie who both wrote and directed. He was a former movie critic for KABC Radio in Los Angeles and previously directed, "Deterrence" (1999).

I should warn some filmgoers of the hermetic nature of this film, in that it depicts the workings of Washington as though it were sealed in with only one thing on its collective mind. Is it simplification to allow exploration of the issue or is it over-simplification for a limited, manipulatable audience? One thing for sure, it's a purgation of a possibly pent-up set of political feelings.

The risk of a film dealing with partisan issues is that a large part of the potential audience will hate it solely because it casts their side in a bad light. Who among us can be so objective as to disregard our own convictions in favor of calmly evaluating the quality of a film? So, I expect many to tear this one apart. But if you're seeking good movie fare, beware of politically inspired condemnation. The key to that would be the use of the phrase, "left-wing ideology" (true though it may be).

Oh, and finally, I should point out that what I referred to above as pornographic is a collection of photos that we glimpse in carefully controlled angles and edits. They are the "evidence" of the attackers and no one should go see this movie out of any prurient interest as they will be grossly disappointed.

Estimated cost: $9,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice receipts: $20,000,000.

Rated C, for Convictions.

                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  



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