Contender [2000]

Depending on your perspective, The Contender can be praised and damned for the same reasons. A political thriller with an insider's view, it's deadly earnest in its defense of truth, justice, and the American way, but writer-director (and former film critic) Rod Lurie resorts to the same manipulation that his film purports to condemn. But with political savvy, a timely idea (a female vice president), and a cast of first-rate actors, this high-office chess game is unabashedly entertaining. You can argue with Lurie's tactics, but you can't fault his patriotic passion. In a role written especially for her, Joan Allen is outstanding (if a bit too saintly) as the Republican-turned-Democrat senator who is chosen by the president (Jeff Bridges) to fill a vice presidential vacancy. Bridges is a cagey chief executive, seemingly aloof as he gleefully challenges the White House's 24-hour kitchen staff but more than a match for the embittered and unscrupulous congressman (Gary Oldman) who plots to destroy Allen's character with seemingly dark secrets from her past. As a gender-switching response to the Lewinsky scandal, The Contender asks potent questions with its impassioned plea for integrity in public service. That makes this a film well worth defending, and the stellar cast (which includes Christian Slater and William Petersen) triumphs over most of the plot's hokey machinations. The ideas are more compelling than their execution, however, and although Lurie's climactic revelation is a vast improvement over the reckless cheat of his previous film Deterrence, it still threatens to tarnish the gloss of an otherwise fascinating film. --Jeff Shannon

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