Accused domestic abuser Gary Oldman won Best Actor on Sunday by continuing the classic Oscar tradition of playing a Great Man in a Tough Situation. Darkest Hour also features a classic Oldman performance, with the veteran character actor disappearing as Winston Churchill. I have been watching Oldman for decades, and I’ve always preferred him as a villain over the stubborn good guy. Sid and Nancy and The Professional resonate more with me than Darkest Hour or Nolan’s Batman trilogy. So whenever I think of Oldman as a politician, I think of the thriller The Contender.
The film was written and directed in 2000 by Rod Lurie, a former film critic who became a successful director because perhaps he got sick of seeing too much dreck. It stars Joan Allen as a Democratic senator from Ohio, and after the Vice President dies, President Jeff Bridges nominates her as his second-in-command. This gets the attention of Oldman’s character, an Illinois Republican member of the House who digs up dirt about the Senator’s past. He claims he has proof of Allen’s character engaging in group sex in college, and uses this against her – and as a chance for ferocious, unrepentant grandstanding. Her strategy is straightforward: she refuses to answer any question about her past, because it is not anyone’s business.
A lot of this political maneuvering is admittedly antiquated. College sexual experimentation is downright vanilla in comparison to sleeping with a porn star, or allegedly watching Russian prostitutes urinate. Still, The Contender maintains its power by creating a plausible milieu, one where a woman in power threatens the status quo simply by refusing to be second-class. This is the sort of D.C. movie that takes place in shadowy offices and private clubs – #ThisTown applies to this movie more than any other I’ve discussed in this column – but at least Lurie has the wherewithal to approach the material with intelligence and skepticism. The Contender that hates Washington because it understands it too well.