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Virginia co-stars in election-year thriller, "The Contender." 

Politics Unusual

Think you've had enough of politics? Take a gander at the plot of "The Contender," the new political thriller that was filmed in Virginia and is steeped in Virginia politics. It's a lulu of political and moral ambiguity that may keep you guessing.

The governor of Virginia, Jack Hathaway, is the favorite to become vice president of the United States after the veep dies in office. A successor must be appointed by President Jackson Evans, a good-ol'-boy Democrat who is in the last months of his two-term presidency and is looking for something, anything, positive to be his legacy.

The political shocker is that President Evans passes over Hathaway to choose Ohio Sen. Laine Hanson who would, if confirmed, be the first female vice president. The choice sets Washington politicians, as well as the rest of the country, into turmoil as battle forces form to favor or fight the confirmation.

Hanson is a transformed Democrat who left the Republican party much to the displeasure of her millionaire father, powerful Republican politician Oscar Billings. Her most formidable opposition comes from conservative Sen. Shelly Runyon, who mounts a campaign against her. His main weapon turns out to be scandalous photographs that involve a party she attended back in college.

President Evans (Jeff Bridges) is urged to drop Sen. Hanson (Joan Allen) in favor of the Virginia governor (William Petersen). If not, the photographs will be released.

"The Contender" raises the question: Should the personal life of a public politician be a part of the agenda? And in this hotly contested election season, observers may also wonder: Does the film favor Republicans or Democrats?

Filmed almost entirely on location in Richmond, the film uses state buildings to substitute for Washington. The main chamber of the Virginia House of Delegates doubles for the House of Representatives where, in a dramatic climax, President Evans addresses Congress.

The Oval Office scenes were shot at Tim Reid's Millennium Studios in Petersburg. The blue chairs came courtesy of Gov. Jim Gilmore.

The film marks the directorial debut of former movie critic Rod Lurie, who also wrote the script, which is both levelheaded and balanced. He says he had no intention of making Virginia the exclusive site of power-brokering and conniving, with a governor who emerges as very close to a villain.

"I don't think the film really has a villain," Lurie says. "In any case, I'm not picking on Virginia. I love Virginia. We were treated well while we filmed there. The film never could have been made if it were not for the cooperation of the state government."

Lurie says the "The Contender" is "no more about politics than 'Rocky' was about boxing. It's about principles, not politics."

The germ of the idea that became "The Contender" surfaced several years ago when Lurie was the presenter of a best supporting actress award to Joan Allen for the Los Angeles Film Critics' Association. She was being honored for her performance in "Pleasantville." "I should write a screenplay for Joan Allen," he announced. "I couldn't lose."

Afterward, she whispered to him, "Write that screenplay." He did. The result is "The Contender," written specifically as a vehicle for the actress who has been Oscar-nominated for her performances in "Nixon" and "The Crucible."

"I've played moms and wives, even Pat Nixon," Allen says, "but I never seemed to get cast as a woman who had any kind of sexuality. When I read this script, I was floored. Not just because it was such a good script for me but because all the characters are well-developed."

But the studios didn't want her. Lurie says he made the rounds of the studios and none of them would touch the project unless a bigger name played the lead. "I held out," he says. "I wrote it for Joan. I wanted her to do it. I was asking for a relatively small budget of $30 million."

Somehow, Lurie raised $9 million independently to put in the pot. When British actor Gary Oldman accepted the script and became one of the producers, DreamWorks agreed to distribute it.

Oldman, almost unrecognizable in the film owing to makeup that includes a receding hairline and spectacles, was not a likely choice for Sen. Shelly Runyon. For one thing, he's British.

"I had an older man in mind, Gene Hackman or Larry Hagman," Lurie says. "But Gary is wonderful. It's due to him that the character of Senator Runyon is not a villain. Gary is actually a conservative. Arch conservative. Naturally he views Runyon as equivalent to the hero of the script."

Allen concedes that she is a Democrat. "But my own politics have nothing to do with playing the role," she adds. "You can't play ambiguity. I had to make definite decisions about Senator Laine Hanson."

Jeff Bridges plays the role of the president, and the actor admits that he was daunted by the prospect. "I played the Dude in 'The Big Lebowski,' a beer-guzzling druggie," he says, "and now I'm the president? It's a stretch, even for Washington. My father [the late actor Lloyd Bridges] was a model. He was a very talkative, outgoing man. He could have been a politician. I studied tapes of everyone from Clinton to Mario Cuomo, Kennedy and Johnson. There's a little of all of them, but I'm not playing any specific person who was ever in the White House."

And, like the director, Bridges doesn't think the film has any villains, or that it favors either Democrats or Republicans. "I think the film takes the stance that one party is no better than the other — and that they both are flawed," he says. "It brings up the question of whether the means justify the end when it comes to power struggles."

But will the situation of a scandal in Washington remind audiences of President Clinton's escapades?

"Oh, I wouldn't be surprised," Bridges says, chuckling slyly. "I'll bet it irritates people on both sides."

— Landmark News Service

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