Directed by: Rod Lurie
Starring: Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges
Some of the very best political speeches in recent years have been delivered by film actors playing courageous, progressive-thinking politicians. In The Contender, Rod Lurie's skillfully scripted exploration of politics and principles, one of the most stirring speeches comes during the confirmation hearing of a female senator nominated to serve out the term of a vice president who dies in office. Joan Allen plays Sen. Laine Hanson with such passion, conviction and quiet dignity that you'll wish she were a real contender. It's another stellar outing by Allen, a remarkable actress of undeniable intelligence whose restrained performances are studies in subtlety. Lurie wrote the film for Allen, and it's definitely her showcase. The male characters, including Jeff Bridges' president, are strictly in supporting roles. In the film, Hanson's liberal bent wins her enemies of considerable power, most notably veteran Congressman Shelly Runyan (a barely recognizable Gary Oldman) -- a formidable adversary who'll stop at nothing to thwart Hanson's nomination as the nation's first female vice president. At the core of his plan to discredit her is a sex scandal dating back to her college days. In the patriarchal world of politics, women aren't supposed to indulge in sexual escapades, let alone aspire to the second-highest office in the country. To Hanson's adversaries, she's a "cancer of liberalism and virtuous decay," a threat to the power they hold so dear. But far more is at stake than the gender of a vice president. The confirmation hearings will ultimately decide whether America's unique brand of "sexual McCarthyism" prevails. The principled Sen. Hanson, determined that it will end, refuses to dignify accusations with a response. Her personal past, she insists, is no one's business but her own. When both friends and foes urge her to confess her supposed sins, she remains steadfast, invoking the name of Isaac Lamb, the first witness called before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the dark days of McCarthyism. Lamb named names and, after him, others fell like dominoes. Had he refused, McCarthy's witch hunt might have stopped there. The remarkably composed and courageous Hanson is clearly this film's hero. The villain is the morally indignant Runyan, who honestly believes his campaign to systematically destroy Hanson is in the country's best interest. The film taps into public cynicism about the darkest underbelly of politics as well as the sexism, both subtle and overt, that is still at play. It must be noted, however, that even an enlightened Hollywood knows the public isn't ready to accept a woman's sexual indiscretions (a plot twist neatly takes care of that bit of untidiness). Laine Hanson stands by her principles even when it's inconvenient; Hollywood simply finds a way to make them convenient. The Contender is an intelligent and gripping film that serves up a stirring alternative for audiences fed up with character assassination and the exploitation of politicians' personal lives. A president exhibiting true moral leadership by chastising Congress for its hateful and petty behavior, and a senator courageously standing by her principles, regardless of the political fallout, are certainly inspiring fantasies. But isn't that what movies are all about -- seeing our dreams projected up on that screen, bigger than life itself? In the chapel of democracy, we can always hope for something better.