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No seal of approval for 'The Contender'

"The Contender" is being touted as a timely release, on the assumption that moviegoers are riveted by the real-life presidential sweepstakes. It's far from certain that audiences are eager to increase their autumn political intake with a movie about a down-and-dirty Washington power struggle. But at least Rod Lurie's melodrama only lasts about two hours, which gives it one big advantage over the real thing.

The story begins when the chief executive is called on to replace the vice president, who unexpectedly dies. His choice is a female senator who has all the right qualities, plus a regrettably wrong one: an alleged sex scandal that surfaces from her distant past.

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Will the president stick to his convictions and help her refurbish her reputation? Will opposition leaders succeed in besmirching them both? And what will follow from the explosive event that opens the movie, a jolting accident that boosts yet another politician to prominence?

This is fascinating material, and a well-chosen cast gives it extra oomph: Jeff Bridges (see interview page 19) as the president, Gary Oldman and Christian Slater as congressional players, and Joan Allen as the vice-presidential hopeful, in one of the rare opportunities she's had to play a three-dimensional character.

"The Contender" is more consistent and coherent than Lurie's previous political thriller, "Deterrence," also about a presidential crisis. But its story is so calculated and its outcome so rigged that it ultimately bears little relation to the real world. Calling this a substantial political allegory would be like calling the average presidential debate a gripping entertainment - a judgment that isn't likely to sweep the nation.

Rated R; contains sexual material.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society