A Conspiracy So Vast


The Contender will be no one’s idea of an October surprise, although, barring some late-breaking revelation of George Bush fratboy shenanigans, Rod Lurie’s meditation on the American political process is about as enjoyably lurid as the current campaign is likely to get.

It’s amply evident in this kiss-and-tell (Oprah) political season that eight years of Bill Clinton brought the politics of entertainment to a new stage. Hollywood got the message early, responding to the Clinton administration with a cycle of soft-issue presidential movies even more extensive, if considerably less apocalyptic, than those of the early ’60s. The Contender may be considered the culminating example of cine Clinton—not because it’s any better than its precursors or because it corrals and crams together a host of Billious (and Gorey) themes just in time for the election, but because it’s the closest the political film has come to merging with daytime TV.

Graceless writing and shameless plot contrivance are part of the fun. Lurie, a former entertainment reporter, has designated All the President’s Men as his favorite movie. But while The Contender takes as a given the post-Watergate notion of Washington as a sewer of slimy ambition, the movie more closely resembles the senatorial drama of Advise and Consent and backstage skullduggery of The Best Man—both movies about ambitious pols with guilty secrets. Adding to the magpie construction are bits of business swiped from Blow Out, The Candidate, and Air Force One, not to mention the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and, above all, the Clinton impeachment.

For all the hot air expended on prescription drug benefits and mandatory school testing, the theatrics of the first Bush-Gore debate were all about projecting alpha maleness and strategic empathy. Lurie similarly understands American politics as more a matter of power and demographics than democracy. His first feature, the low-budget and widely derided Deterrence, featured the nation’s first unelected Jewish president trapped by a blizzard in a Colorado diner as he ponders the possibility of nuking Iraq. The Contender revolves around a second-term president’s look to his legacy in attempting to replace his deceased running mate with America’s first unelected female vice president.

This historic feat is rendered all the more problematic by the insatiable thirst for tabloid trash that the media has induced in the American public. As in some nightmare episode of The Jerry Springer Show, the vice president designate is confronted with the revelation of a nasty, supposedly deposed and documented bacchanal in her teenaged past. It’s not a crime, but to the relief of audiences everywhere, it insures that the confirmation hearings can be all about sex. As a resident media-savvy wise man puts it, “The one thing that the American people cannot stomach is a vice president with a mouth full of cock.”

I’m sure Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney will be pleased to know that. The Contender is a movie where you are what you eat and politicians are all creatures of appetite. President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges in prize hambone mode) is a cigarette-smoking, glad-handing Clintonesque blowhard whose main psychological quirk seems to be that he’s always hungry—for food, that is. His vice president designate, Senator Laine Hanson (a tailored and determined Joan Allen, for whom Lurie wrote the role), is introduced having sex atop her office desk—albeit with her husband. Their nemesis is Republican congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman, hilariously tricked out in fake hair-plugs), a poky Henry Hyde type whose unhealthy if not murderous instincts are several times suggested by the gusto with which he tucks into a big slab of bloody steak.

Because the lusty Laine is identified with liberalism, abortion, and affirmative action, she becomes the object of a vast right-wing conspiracy. She will be hillary’d. “We have to gut the bitch in the belly,” a member of the instant cabal smirks moments before the story of her long ago frat-house indiscretion breaks on the Internet. (Not for nothing did Allen play the bride of Nixon.) Reading the situation clearly, the president warns his candidate that “the whole world [is] thinking you’re something out of a crazed soap opera.” He advises her to take a leaf from the Bill Clinton playbook and make a public confession.

But that’s not exactly Lurie’s game plan. As the president tells his nominee to go beyond embarrassment, so Lurie himself ventures beyond cynicism. The Contender is an attack on itself—or maybe a defense. Having created a situation in which his heroine can self-righteously invoke the House Committee on Un-American Activities, sexual McCarthyism, and the “ideological rape of all women,” Lurie decries the existence of a double standard—the better to demonstrate its dramaturgical necessity.

Bizarrely pugilistic, The Contender‘s title refers mainly to Joan Allen’s Oscar prospects, and why not? Cheesy as the movie is, it allows the actress to play Bill to her own Monica and emerge from the Washington cesspool satisfyingly unbesmirched.

It’s a show-business truism that the gravitas of the American presidency has been sadly diminished by the fall of the Evil Empire. The Red Stuff, which opens today at Film Forum, harks back to that lost era—from the other side of the looking glass.

Made for Dutch television, this jovial documentary on the Soviet space program begins by conjuring phantoms of parades gone by in an otherwise empty Red Square. Interviews with a number of the now elderly surviving cosmonauts are juxtaposed with their official socialist realist portraits. Gazing toward the radiant future, the men seem invulnerable—if only because their chests are ridiculously bedecked with layers of medals.

Coinciding more or less with the reign of Nikita Khrushchev, the glory days of the Soviet space program lasted from the October 1957 Sputnik launch through the March 1965 first-ever space walk. (Thereafter, the U.S. took the lead and held it.) The Red Stuff may have its greatest appeal for those who lived through these events and can be stirred by their evanescence. The movie is basically a nostalgic assemblage of Jetsonesque monuments to interplanetary travel, triumphalist newsreels, commemorative china plates, and pop anthems proclaiming “The Eaglets Learn to Fly!”

Although filmmaker Leo de Boer has exhumed some remarkable footage of the three cosmonauts who died in a 1971 accident, the far more devastating (and perhaps still classified) launchpad explosion of October 1960 is never cited. The movie is evocative but ahistorical. There’s no mention made of the proto-cosmonaut propaganda generated around the Soviet aviators of the 1930s. (These were “Stalin’s falcons” rather than Nikita’s eagles.) Nor is much attention paid to the political implications of the space race. Two days after Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth, a wavering JFK decided to sign off on the CIA-organized invasion of Cuba; a few months later, Gherman Titov’s follow-up 17-orbit trip contributed nearly as much to the war hysteria of August 1961 as did the following week’s erection of the Berlin Wall.

In the Museum of Cold War Culture, The Red Stuff would make a resonant double bill with Space Cowboys. Rounding out the Film Forum program, however, is Aki Kaurismäki’s more sardonic Total Balalaika Show, which, shot in 1993, documents the “outrageous spectacle” of the once mighty Red Army Chorus appearing in concert with those outlandish Finnish “tundra rockers,” the Leningrad Cowboys, before 70,000 flag-waving fans in Helsinki’s Senate Square. Both groups are in uniform, which in the case of the Cowboys means gargantuan pointy pompadours and mile-long shoes.

Basically an exercise in post-imperial humiliation, Total Balalaika Show begins with the hapless Russians signing a contract for all 160 of their singers, musicians, and dancers to perform as the Cowboys’ backup. In a gesture of friendship, they open the concert with the Sibelius ode “Finlandia”; the Cowboys then join them to sing “Happy Together” (in English, as are all their songs). Thereafter it’s schlock around the clock—”Volga Boatmen” gives way to the no less bombastic Tom Jones hit “Delilah”; a ripe “Orchi Chornye” is trumped by “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Playing cardboard tractor-shaped guitars or doing a kozotski across the stage during “Kalinka,” the Cowboys play the Chorus for a colossal stooge. This cathartic commercialization of the Red Army is a minor exercise in Sots Art—the equivalent of using Lenin to endorse Coca-Cola. The joke is funny but it wears thin even before the ensembles combine to cover the English-language version of the old Russian vodka-swiller “Those Were the Days.”