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The Contender

I must make a confession: before I got my job working as PC Support in the Arkansas State Legislature, I never really gave politics or political thrillers much thought. The Byzantine machinations of those seeking office or keeping it never really did anything for me. Now that I work closely with these sorts of people on a daily basis, I felt that I needed to educate myself on what makes them tick.

Of course, there is a huge difference between the goings-on of a small state like mine whose legislators are part-time ‘citizen legislators’ and the high-level activities of the federal government. The stakes are much higher, and the people play for keeps. No part timers- you have to have politics and statecraft in your blood, because there are a lot of ‘little guys’ and ‘wannabes’ waiting for you to slip up, and ‘wade in your own blood’. Not my choice for a lifestyle- never knowing who to trust, and having to look for ‘R’ and ‘D’ to discern a person’s intent- but to have a look at this whole thing is definitely insightful.

Enter "The Contender", a political thriller along the lines of "All the Presidents Men" and "Day of the Jackal". In this film, there is a big vacancy to fill- the office of the Vice President. The President (Jeff Bridges, who ought to be picked to play young Dubya should the part ever come up), has rejected the favored candidate, Governor Jack Hathaway (William L. Petersen) and instead picked for his candidate Ohio Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen).

Allen’s Hanson is a serenely powerful woman who is comfortable with who she is, polished and professional, and surprised that she was picked over the favorite candidate. The Governor was considered a hero because he attempted and failed to rescue a woman whose car went over the side of a bridge where he was fishing. But he "turned down" the post. Actually, the President told him that he wasn’t going to pick him, but wanted him to make it look like it was his idea. Ah, politics at its best- nothing is ever as it seems.

Of course, Hanson’s selection doesn’t set well with everyone. Enter Senator Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) who is the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and who wields a big stick in his party. Oldman’s portrayal of Runyon as a brittle, spiritually shriveled moralist is brilliant- another in a series of fascinating and twisted characters in Oldman’s career. (He also produced the film.) The very idea of a woman being VP outrages him, and he seeks to dig up dirt on her- with the help of a junior Representative (Christian Slater).

Of course they find it- a frat party during her freshman years that yields up lots of photos and witnesses to a sexual indiscretion that ought to send her fleeing to the President in shame to beg to step down from consideration. But Hanson is made of tougher stuff than that, and her absolute refusal to comment on what happened shows her real inner power and guts. The brilliant writing as the vice gets clamped tighter makes this movie riveting and enjoyable- even if it doesn’t have too much action. The twists and turns and brilliant surprises in the plot more than make up for any contrived car chases or gun fights. This is more interesting, because it is more realistic. The ending is a little hokey, in a "Mister Smith Goes to Washington" way, but even that doesn’t blight it too much. Only someone who is well versed in parliamentary procedure would really notice. And ‘insiders’ are allowed to pick nits.

This movie appealed to me on two levels- first being the political level. Although the whole thing is fiction, the action of the characters is very authentic, and minor versions of this story happen nearly every day on all levels of political endeavor.

But the real appeal- for me at least- was that we have a female character who has power, and who made a sexual error early in her life that would be laughed off or dismissed were she a man. But, because she is female, the same act would possibly destroy her career and any authority she had. The courage she utilizes in standing up to and challenging this double standard makes this film a real keeper. I think it ought to be watched by young women and political junkies simply for the message it brings. Women can never truly be peers unless the stigma of sexual standards is the same for them as it is for males.

On the technical side, I only have one complaint about the DVD- the sound got fuzzy towards the end. Otherwise, the video transfer, wide screen presentation, and extra goodies were your standard DVD fare.

 

2001 by Lorie A. Johnson

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