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Movie Review by Alice Castle

Starring: Gary Oldman, Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges
Director: Rod Lurie

I recently attended a seminar about the legacy left by Margaret Thatcher. The speakers, former Tory MP Edwina Currie and Polly Toynbee, left-wing columnist at the Guardian, both commented that despite being Britain’s first female Prime Minister and one of the few British leaders to have won three elections, Margaret Thatcher had made it very clear from the beginning of her leadership that she was NOT interested in “Women’s Issues”. She may have been a female but she didn’t even want to answer questions about the astonishing fact that she was both a woman and a leader of a G7 country.

So let’s look at the rest of the world. The Irish have done it, the Scandinavians and the sub-continent have been doing it for ages, but the Americans still aren’t quite ready to have a woman lead their nation. In the long-standing and perhaps one-sided love affair between Hollywood and Washington DC we get to see what might happen if a woman ran for the runners-up role. The result is the political thriller THE CONTENDER.

Rod Lurie, a former film critic, directed and wrote THE CONTENDER with the cool, calm and very collected Joan Allen in mind. If anyone is going to be presidential it’s her, or maybe someone like Glenn Close or Meryl Streep might have done equally good justice to the role. Nevertheless, Allen plays Senator Laine Hanson, and was nominated for the Oscar this year alongside her co-star in a supporting role, Jeff Bridges who plays the affable, stomach-motivated President Jackson Evans.

It’s the last term of Evan’s Presidency and the Vice President has died in office. We don’t find out much about him, only that he was a he of course! As his swansong, the soon to be outgoing President Evans wants to leave his Democratic Party with a worthy successor and he thinks it might be rather nice to have a woman in the job.

We all know how male-dominated politics is, and so it’s no surprise that even the good guys are judging Senator Laine on her appearance and the fact that she looks great before a press conference. We also know that the contenders for such high-profile positions as Vice President are going to have every detail of their public and personal lives examined and it is here that Laine Hansen comes unstuck. It emerges that she may have been involved in a “gang bang” at college – there are dodgy photos and witnesses to prove it apparently – and Hansen refuses to deny or even comment.

As Hansen points out, if she were a man the number of partners she had slept with before getting married would be irrelevant, perhaps even celebrated, but as a woman it is socially unacceptable. We all know how embarrassing President Clinton’s indiscretions were for him, but they didn’t really do his approval ratings any harm. But if he had been a woman, how would the public have felt about him?

This is “sexual Macarthyism” and the McCarthy character is Congressman Sheldon Runyon played by Gary Oldman, an unattractive career politician who leaks half-truths to the press to make Hansen unpopular. Oldman plays the part convincingly but was apparently upset about the way he was portrayed as a rather cardboard-cut-out baddy in the final cut.

If you love political thrillers you’ll definitely enjoy THE CONTENDER. If however you’re sick of seeing celluloid presidents – God like figures posing as affable old duffers who can’t decide on which kind of shark sandwich to have for elevenses and who really ought to be doing something to solve world poverty but haven’t got round to it – then you probably won’t bother with it.

4 out of 6 stars