If only writer-director Rod Lurie could get his mind out of the gutter. Lurie, responsible for last year's dopey and turgid political thriller Deterrence (with Kevin Pollack as president, meaning he's already made a movie with a Jewish commander-in-chief), panders to the lowest common denominator and allows no room for serious reflection or deliberation: A commercial break during The West Wing is more thoughtful on issues of ideology. Instead, Lurie revels in the lurid, showing us, over and over, flashback footage of vice president-designate Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) taking on two guys when she was 19 (if in fact it is she). The first time we see Hanson, she's caught with her pants down, rutting on a desk with her husband; later, a woman gives a deposition in which she insists that Hanson participated in an orgy, "and when she came out, she was covered in cum." Lurie, a former film critic, has an excellent career in hard-core ahead of him; if nothing else, the guy just loves close-ups.
The writer-director's good guys are moral, upright, virtuous, noble; President Jackson Evans' (Jeff Bridges) sole flaw is his weakness for shark-steak sandwiches and other White House delicacies, available at his beck and call. Evans will stand by his woman, whom he has chosen to replace the recently deceased VP (no explanation given), regardless of allegations made by those officials who refuse to approve a woman as vice president. He cares little that she may or may not have participated in a frat-house gangbang way back when. Hanson's appointment will be Evans' legacy, accusations be damned, and no one will keep him from the history books.
Lurie's bad guys soak in sweat until they're bathed in an evil sheen; they smirk and leer and utter such things as "We have to gut the bitch in the belly." As Senator Shelly Runyon, the head of the committee that will confirm Hanson's appointment, Gary Oldman lacks only a pencil-thin mustache to twirl between fat fingers. Instead, he skulks behind Woody Allen's glasses and beneath a hairpiece on loan from Sean Penn's character from Carlito's Way. He's such a caricature, such a buffoon, that he represents no real threat; it's only a matter of time before Good trumps Evil in this fixed game of wills. His downfall is inevitable, because Hollywood will not make a film about the virtues of liberalism without giving it a pat, happy ending that all but destroys a Republican -- complete with a speech by a Democratic president that so moves Congress, they all but seek to grant him a third term. Yes, The Contender has the same climax as The American President and Dave, not to mention every single episode of The West Wing.
Runyon loathes Hanson simply because she's a woman; he prefers instead Governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), whom we see in the opening moments trying to save a woman from drowning after her car whizzes off a bridge, beneath which the governor is fishing with a reporter. Hathaway has convinced himself his heroics will make him a shoo-in for the nomination -- repeatedly, he's referred to as a hero, the nation's new Audie Murphy -- but the president isn't biting. "You're the future of the Democratic party," Evans tells Hathaway, "and you always will be." (Bridges is allowed the film's few moments of levity; he carries the weight of his office so casually you'd think he was the world's oldest fraternity president.) The president's chief of staff, Kermit Newman (Sam Elliott, sans mustache), lays it out more simply: "We can't have another Chappaquidick," suggesting he knows something about Hathaway we don't. When Newman uncovers his own revelations about the governor, the film comes completely undone; it makes absolutely no sense.
Runyon tells Hanson he won't confirm her nomination because she doesn't possess "the promise of greatness," but his motivations aren't so noble. Indeed, we know nothing about what any of these people stand for; they're merely archetypes, good Democrats who believe in a woman's right to choose and oily Republicans who refer to those across the aisle as baby-killers. Lurie tries to instill a little nobility in Runyon, referring to a piece of legislation he presented making hate crimes a capital offense, but it doesn't stick. He's too greasy to win our smallest sympathies; even Runyon's own wife can't stand him.
Lurie insists in the press notes that the film is less about politics than principles: Hanson refuses to confirm or deny the allegations brought against her by Runyon and a freshman senator, Reginald Webster (Christian Slater). She will not dignify them with a response, even after Runyon has leaked them over the Internet to a Drudge Report-like website in order to keep his own hands clean. Allen merely clenches her jaw and squeezes out a solitary tear; she's a rock, sinking to the bottom of the cesspool. But Lurie wants it both ways: He forbids Hanson to respond, then allows her to tell the entirety of the tale to the president long after she's insisted it's none of his, or anyone else's, business. Some things, and some movies, you just wish people would keep to themselves.