Writer-director Rod Lurie is to political thriller cinema what Jackie Collins is to romance novels: high-gloss trash. The difference is that Lurie takes himself seriously.
Earlier this year his preposterous nuclear countdown yarn "Deterrence" was released after sitting on a shelf for two years. It starred Kevin Pollack as a US president snowed in at a Colorado greasy spoon getting unsolicited advice from a peanut gallery of patrons as Saddam Hussein's son revealed a secret nuclear arsenal pointed at our shores. Even more ridiculous than the plot was the "just kidding" manner in which it concludes.
Now comes "The Contender," a lurid yet didactic gavel-to-gavel drama about a vice presidential appointee embroiled in a sex scandal.
Joan Allen carries the film in a sturdy, dignified turn as the senator tapped by Democratic President Jeff Bridges (who is altogether weightless in the role) to replace his recently deceased veep. When rumors surface that she has a pornographic tryst with a group of frat boys in college, the sniping Republican in charge of her confirmation hearing (Gary Oldman, delightfully wallowing in repugnance) seizes the opportunity to assassinate her character.
The candidate's adamant stand is that her sexual history is nobody's business but her own -- which is also the message of the movie, wielded like a sledgehammer. But while Lurie shakes his finger at those who would probe this woman's private life with one hand, with the other he's pulling back the boudoir curtains to show us frequent softcore flashbacks of the orgy around which the scandal revolves. "Hypocrite" is clearly not a word not found in this director's vocabulary (although he seems overly enamored with the phrase "gang bang").
Amateurish in many ways (the White House sets just scream "sound stage") but overwhelming pretentious nonetheless, "The Contender" is meant to keep you guessing until the end with absurd last-minute twists and slow-burn subplots about ambitious politicians with ulterior motives.
Lurie does do a commendable job of portraying the ins and outs of backhanded backroom politics in Washington, D.C. Not wanting to look to the public like a member of the Spanish Inquisition, Congressman Oldman secretly arranges for details of the alleged sexual encounter to be published on a web site, quoting "unnamed sources" so he can read from it at the hearing without taking the blame for bringing the sordid affair to light.
Other strong points:
1) Allen and Oldman give award-worthy performances in complex, well-drawn and well-spoken roles that include interesting soul-searching scenes with their families. Such moments reveal dimensions of character that we would never see if the film took place entirely in political chambers. (On the other hand, Christian Slater is stuck in the flavorless part of a rookie representative who is too naive to be believed.)
2) Lurie does have a few bursts of cinematic creativity up his sleeve, as when he places the audience behind the scenes at a TV studio while Allen is interviewed via satellite by an attack dog TV commentator. All we see and hear are her incensed responses to his questions and the panicked reactions of her advisors standing in the wings. If only the whole movie could be so provocative.
3) The picture maintains a vivid, palpable tension from start to finish -- or at least from start until the anti-climactic last reel cop-out, which seems to be part of Lurie's modus operandi.
"The Contender" fancies itself a political bombshell event movie, on par with "All the President's Men" or "The Parallax View." But in reality it's little more than a cinematic muckraker, hungry for a little sensationalism.
The film requires too much suspension of disbelief (e.g., the FBI doesn't do a background check on Allen until after the president announces she's his choice?), and it depends too much on people's willingness to buy into conspiracies so preposterous they should be the stuff of science fiction.