Joan Allen shines in The Contender, Rob Lurie's political drama opening this weekend.
Thursday, October 12, 2000
Vice presidential nominee Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) is the new appointment of a lame-duck president, in director Rob Lurie''s new film, The Contender. She''s about to be confirmed when rumors of a decades-old peccadillo become public. And a right-wing Congressman, modeled on the aptly named Mr. Hyde of Illinois and played by Gary Oldman, uses the evidence to try to force her resignation. 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 discuss her personal life.
As was his previous film, Deterrence, Lurie''s The Contender is too rhetorical a story to be completely successful. In Deterrence, the decision of whether to use atomic weapons was made unavoidable by a highly unlikely chain of events. And the characterization in Deterrence didn''t give us a sense of the human factor, either. In both of Lurie''s films, the politicians plug forth like escapees from a Tom Clancy novel. In The Contender, the President (Jeff Bridges) has a trick of ordering food at random times--simply because it tickles him that someone can hop to his bidding any time he wants something. Once or twice, this is a humanizing gesture, to make us see the President as a man. Done as many times as it is in The Contender, insures that all we remember about the president is that he''s a chowhound.
Bridges does the Bridges thing: He''s warm, and fun to watch. It''s Joan Allen who carries The Contender with her incomparable gravity. Allen plays a Republican governor''s daughter who has become a Democrat senator, perhaps pushed to the left by the Republican party''s drift to the right. Hanson is a patrician, but Lurie''s drawn her as a neutral figure, whose politics won''t distance her from any member of the audience.
Previously, Allen successfully pinpointed the essential tragedy in the story of Nixon, in Oliver Stone''s 1995 film of that title. Garry Willis in his 1969 book Nixon Agonistes reported watching the real Pat Nixon descending from a plane: "Her face chilled with smiles...the freckled hands were picking at one another, playing with gloves, trying to still each other''s trembling. There is one thing worse than being a violated man. Being a violated man''s wife." That was Joan Allen''s Pat Nixon to the inch. She me think of Edith Scob''s role as the plastic-masked, disfigured woman in Franju''s poetic horror film Eyes Without a Face--the mouth rigid and firm, the eyes burning through their holes, a hint of the scarified person underneath. While Laine is a much more assured person, Allen suggests again the nature of the person who becomes a politican--namely, a person so in control of emotions that you have to believe what''s on the surface, because you''re firmly denied access to anything deeper.
Lurie''s getting more professional in his direction, throwing the audience a deft curve at the end, and keeping the pace of the story-telling swift. But The Contender''s happy ending changes the film''s tone from Gore Vidal to Frank Capra. The exact revelation of what happened that long ago night violates The Contender''s argument for a more dignified political process. I believe in what The Contender has to say--that partisan 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.