Rod Lurie's The Contender puts the "vice" back in vice president. Looking utterly smashing in a series of wide-collared power suits, Joan Allen stars as a U.S. senator who, picked to replace a recently deceased veep, refuses to confirm or deny that she had sex with two frat guys at once back in her college days. Jeff Bridges, also looking smashing, is the president who more or less stands by her. And Gary Oldman, looking as if a mangy weasel landed on his head, is the ideologue who will stop at nothing to derail the nomination. At once lurid and high-minded, The Contender is like a Playboy Channel version of "West Wing"--not as intelligent, unfortunately, but not (quite) as stirringly righteous either, thank God. Though clunky, even junky, in places, it's eminently watchable, mostly because of the acting. Allen, as always, is one cool cucumber. And Oldman, as always, is just the opposite--a red-hot chili pepper of scene-chewiness. But it's Bridges, as some weird combination of Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton and Martin Sheen, who walks off with the movie in his pocket. Never has a guy played an intelligent guy playing dumb so intelligently.
In interviews, Lurie keeps citing the political thrillers of the '70s--All the President's Men, The Parallax View, etc. But The Contender is in fact a throwback to the late '50s and early '60s, specifically to Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent, which was based on a bestselling 1959 novel by Allen Drury. I'm not sure Lurie has added much to Advise and Consent, except that McCarthyism has transmogrified into sexual McCarthyism. (Actually, now that I think about it, Advise and Consent had a touch of sexual McCarthyism too.) Still, from Anita Hill's Coke can to Monica Lewinsky's blue dress, these are the times we live in, and The Contender goes after the double standard that applies when men and women seek higher office. Then, in an ending that I shall treat as a state secret, it waffles like a politician asked whether she beats her husband. The movie's overall point--that male politicians have it easier when it comes to sexual imbroglios--seems contradicted by the fact that Bill Clinton was almost removed from office. And yet who doubts that if, say, Hillary Clinton were caught fooling around with an intern, her senatorial career would be over before it's begun?