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Sex and the Beltway

Joan Allen plays a prim V.P. nominee with a past, in "The Contender." "Billy Elliot" is the latest British comedy to turn squalor into a style statement.

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First Woman: Joan Allen, with Saul Rubinek, left, and Sam Elliott, in The Contender.  

The timing of the release of the new political drama The Contender can be viewed as either impeccable or a redundancy. The film keys into the current election season, of course, and for political junkies who can't get a big enough fix from the real thing, it presents a reasonable facsimile of headline-making subterfuges and skulduggery and speechifying. And yet for all its superficial topicality, The Contender, which was written and directed by Rod Lurie and stars Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges, is a political film of the old school: not the smarty-pants satires we've become used to, such as Wag the Dog, but rather the low-down, high-minded message movies of the Advise & Consent ilk, complete with music-swelling sentiment. It's a movie that wallows in the muckiness of the political process as it's played out in Washington while at the same time celebrating with a Founding Fathers righteousness the guiding principles of that process. (Lurie doesn't seem to be aware of how that kind of pushy righteousness can itself seem mucky.) The timing of The Contender may be up-to-date, but its ringing, upstanding tone deliberately links it to an earlier era when political movies were still consumed by audiences supposedly unjaded by terminally hip cynicism.

Is it such a bad thing that we can't take our political dramas straight anymore? And isn't it the height of sentimentality to assume that we once, unequivocally, could? (Did people swallow even Frank Capra movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington whole, or do we just like to think they did?) The politically oriented movies that have always meant the most to me are not films like Advise & Consent or even The Best Man but The Manchurian Candidate and Dr. Strangelove -- movies that put our own nutso disbelief in the political process right onto the screen. Playing it straight in the political-movie realm has always yielded a few big, square pleasures, but the political circus in this country is too baroque and vehement, too much of a self-satire already, to be adequately expressed by traditionalists. One reason political movies are so rarely even attempted anymore is because the real-life shenanigans are so much more compelling, even cinematic. Washington may be working itself into one of its periodic election-eve high dudgeons about the depravities of Hollywood, but the ways in which the elections and the issues are covered on television and the rest of the media, as well as the ways in which politicians and their handlers spin themselves, owe a tremendous debt to Hollywood.

Lurie's saving grace as a filmmaker is that, although he's prone to pontification, he has a melodramatist's flair and a talent for summoning the cured, Grade A porker in his performers. When the cast, which also includes Gary Oldman as a scurvy Republican congressman, Sam Elliott as chief of staff, and William Petersen as a dismayed governor, is as accomplished as this one, that hamminess can be immensely enjoyable. Joan Allen, whose hamminess here takes the form of an almost ascetic underemoting, plays Democratic senator Laine Hanson, who is proffered by president Jackson Evans (Bridges) as his new vice-presidential appointee after his sitting VP suddenly dies in office. Well into his second term, Evans wants to claim the legacy of having the first female veep. Bridges plays the president without stuffiness; Evans is a human being who also happens to be commander-in-chief, and his craftiness and double-dealing are just politicized versions of what he might be up to if he were a corporate CEO or just about anything else. He enjoys the blood sport of politics, while Hanson values principle above power. For Lurie, principles are a liability in Washington, which is why, when a sex scandal from Hanson's sorority days threatens her confirmation, he turns her into a feminist standard-bearer for the right to privacy and sets practically everyone on both sides of the aisle against her. She refuses to confirm or deny the scandal, and she refuses to sling mud in her defense even when her allies heap mudballs in her hands.

Lurie is making a movie about sexual McCarthyism in Washington, but he does so with a woman, and not a Clintonesque president, as its focus. His point seems to be that men in Washington enjoy a double standard, although Gary Hart, not to mention Bill Clinton, might have a somewhat different take on the matter. He rigs the game by dressing Hanson in that typically starched and sexless armor that female politicians use to gird themselves for life on Capitol Hill. The film would have been more daring, and earned its righteousness more, if she had been less patrician and more rowdy. But Hanson, who doesn't budge in her beliefs even with the president and who defends herself before the jackals in the confirmation committee with a resoluteness that would give Patrick Henry pause, is Lurie's kind of heroine. Like the president here, he's interested in laying down a legacy, too. (The film's dedication reads, "For all our daughters.") Here's hoping big bad Hollywood will bleach the do-goodnik out of him so he can realize his much more juicy talent for portraying the unprincipled.

It's Northern England in 1984, and the miners are on strike. What's the poor son of a striker to do except -- dance? Billy Elliot is the latest in a line of ersatz feel-good movies from Britain set against a backdrop of grime and joblessness. The Full Monty has turned out to be the most baleful of influences on English cinema; not that such movies have much to do with England. They are aimed far more at Americans, specifically American tourists, than at Brits: Squalor is transformed into quaintness; book your plane reservations early.

In Billy Elliot, our eponymous young hero (Jamie Bell) opts out of the family boxing tradition to become, clandestinely at first, a ballet dancer. His hard-nosed father (Gary Lewis) is, of course, worried that the boy is a poof, and the director, Stephen Daldry, seems a bit worried we'll think so, too. So he has young Billy practically bouncing off the ballet-school walls. Manly dancing, this. What finally brings Dad around is his realization that ballet will keep Billy out of the mines (it takes him an awfully long time to come up with this revelation). Billy Elliot is such a prodigious feat of four-hankie engineering that Julie Walters's fierce performance as the boy's dance instructor may get lost in the suds. That would be a far greater injustice than anything Billy endures.


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