By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated October 20, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

A political thriller as susceptible to hot-button issues in this election year as Al Gore is susceptible to wardrobe consultants, The Contender has everything on its side except the courage of its convictions. Which is all the more dismaying because writer-director Rod Lurie’s convictions are paraded with such attention-grabbing indignation.

It’s the final term of Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges), an American President so commanding yet so humble and at ease — the full Martin Sheen thing — that he is perpetually, joyfully amazed at his right to order outlandish meals from the White House kitchen at any hour. Evans is expansive, likable, and respectful of the awesome office he holds — the full Jeff Bridges thing. As a post-Clintonian character, he shows many of our outgoing President’s positive traits (charisma, charm, appetite) with none of the negatives. But between bites of shark sandwich, Evans advances an important agenda: The recent death of the Vice President means the President has a chance to make history by appointing a woman to fill the vacancy.

The contender of choice is Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), a U.S. senator with seemingly impeccable credentials. She’s the daughter of a retired Republican governor and a convert to the Democratic party. She’s seasoned and respected. And we know she’s happily, monogamously married because even though she and her husband are parents of a cute son, the lovebirds still enjoy knocking boots on her office desk.

Hanson’s appointment is opposed, however, by Rep. Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), a bitter political adversary so retro in his tastes that he still wears Cold War-style eyeglasses and noisily chomps blood-red meat. Runyon’s in a lather not only because he’s a Republican (and therefore, in Hollywood, expected to froth) but also because he feels humiliated that his own more tractable VP choice (William Petersen) has been nixed. So, as chairman of the subcommittee in charge of the appointment hearings, he goes after Hanson with all the dirt he can fling.

By which, of course — this being the era of the Starr Report as pornography — he means accusations of sexual scandal. Going back decades to college days, Runyon’s scavengers unearth gossip that young single Laine allegedly took part in a frat-house bacchanal, trading sexual favors for sorority admittance. Someone even vomits up photos. Hanson, however, calmly and adamantly refuses to comment or answer questions. Her private life, she insists, is nobody’s business but her own. Period.

Lurie, a former entertainment reporter and movie critic, cites All the President’s Men, The Candidate, and The Parallax View as influences. And he knows how to run some flashy maneuvers on the playing field, employing secondary players to serve as human position papers. Bridges glistens, sleek, while Oldman grinds and sputters; aged by makeup and an extraordinary wig from which angry tufts shoot out of a receding hairline, he plays a conservative Republican as creepily repressed as Democrats are meant to be admirably lusty. (Hanson may have changed party affiliations so she could get some.)

Joan Allen, meanwhile, fills her character with all the sexual juice the actress has had to stanch in a fine career playing frustrated women, from the First Lady in Nixon to the tamped-down housewives in Pleasantville and The Ice Storm. With her long, dancerly elegance accentuated by a wardrobe of tunic jackets and turned-up white collars that emphasize her swan neck, she makes Hanson a model of personal dignity, creating a character as well-done as Oldman’s is overcooked. As Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky might readily recognize, the movie deviously encourages viewers to fantasize about the woman doing the nasty, and Allen factors that humiliation, too, into her beautiful performance.

The Contender booms and pontificates, full of bravado and that ineffable quality of the current political season, chutzpah. But what it doesn’t do — what The West Wing does on television week after week with far less bombast and more substance — is convey a sense of Washington as a place of fast-paced multitasking. In Lurie’s District of Columbia, Hanson-bashing is the only thing on Runyon’s calendar. Too, in the end, the movie only pretends to be enlightened, liberal. At a crucial turn — one that, I suppose, ought not to be revealed, even though it riles me so much I could spit — the filmmaker caves. Whether this is out of cowardice or the essential, prudish conservatism of Hollywood, I can’t say. But while the discrepancy may make for a lively debate as to whether this latest addition to the canon of political thrillers in fact mirrors our own waffly, focus-group-driven times, it makes for a badly compromised drama.

The Contender engages in the cinematic equivalent of not inhaling. The result is only a contact high. B-