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[whitespace] Joan Allen Advise and Consenting Adults: Joan Allen plays a politician plagued by rumors of a past indiscretion in 'The Contender.'

Scandal Mongering

Political hardball comes under scrutiny in Rob Lurie's centrist political drama

By Richard von Busack

A SEX SCANDAL strikes the U.S. government in The Contender. Vice presidential nominee Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) is the appointment of a lame-duck president. She's about to be confirmed when rumors of a decades-old peccadillo become public.

A right-wing congressman named Shelly Runyon, modeled on the aptly named Mr. Hyde of Illinois and played by Gary Oldman, uses the evidence to try to get her to resign. Hanson's defense is to stonewall--she refuses to answer the questions about the incident on the grounds that it's beneath her dignity to answer.

As in his previous film Deterrence, director/writer Rob Lurie tries to tell a story that is too rhetorical to be completely successful. In Lurie's two films, the politicians plug forth, foursquare, like politicians from a Tom Clancy novel. Where is the irresolution, the space of time spent waiting for the polls or for advice?

And Lurie's figures of power seem based on descriptions heard secondhand. In The Contender, the president (Jeff Bridges) has a trick of always ordering food at any time of the day or night--simply because it tickles him that someone can hop to his bidding whenever he wants something to eat.

Done once or twice, this is a humanizing gesture, but the joke, done repeatedly, ensures that all that can be remembered about the president is that he's a chow hound. (That, and the fact that he jokes that he has the Bomb, so people ought to do as he says. How likely is that unless you're Ronald Reagan?)

Bridges does the Bridges thing; he's warm, and fun to watch, but Joan Allen carries The Contender with her own incomparable gravity. She plays a Republican governor's daughter who has become a Democratic senator, perhaps pushed to the left by the Republican Party's drift to the right.

One of the best actors working today, Allen expertly impersonates a senator whose politics are a matter to be inquired about delicately, as if the subject were how much money she has. (Her views have to be pried out by a congressional committee.) Hanson is a patrician, but Lurie's drawn her as a neutral figure, whose politics won't distance her from any extremes of the audience. Most will just swoon over her good breeding.

Lurie's getting more professional in his direction, throwing the audience a deft curve at the end and keeping the pace steady. The Contender is a faster movie than Deterrence. But the happy ending changes the tone from Gore Vidal to Frank Capra. The exact revelation of what happened that long-ago night violates the film's argument for a more dignified political process.

I believe what The Contender has to say--that sex scandals rob our nation of its best leaders. But I can't believe that the best way to meet accusations is to act like the Lamb of God on trial. However, Allen's complexity puts suspense in this exercise; you can never read guilt or innocence on that steady, intelligent face. Allen is one actor who can take the boredom out of dignity.

The Contender (R; 132 min.), directed and written by Rod Lurie, photographed by Denis Maloney and starring Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the October 12-18, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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