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“This movie has what I call a cynical idealism to it,” Rod Lurie says of The Contender, the political drama he wrote and directed. It focuses on two things Americans can’t ignore with the presidential election less than a month away: the machinations of Washington power brokers and character assassination, their favorite weapon.

Lurie is a born provocateur and he isn’t afraid to piss people off. This West Point graduate made his living for more than a decade as a kind of grandstanding entertainment journalist. He would just as easily churn out scathing — often rancorous — movie reviews, turn righteous muckraker to expose the inner workings of the tabloids, and rile up Los Angeles talk radio audiences already prone to passionate opinions. But when Lurie made the nearly unheard-of leap from commentator to filmmaker, he chose the topic closest to his heart: politics.

Born in Israel (where government policy has an immediate, not trickle-down, effect on daily life), Lurie received his first political education from his father, a political cartoonist for the venerable Life magazine. But it was observing just how few women hold elected office in the United States, and wondering what climate will greet his young daughter if she inherits his love of politics, that prompted Lurie to make The Contender, which details the land mine-strewn path a female senator must traverse after she’s nominated for vice president. Interestingly, the one politician he didn’t think of was Geraldine Ferraro, the vice-presidential candidate on the 1984 Democratic ticket.

“I think that was one of the worst moves ever, to be honest with you,” he states. “In a year when Walter Mondale was absolutely sure to lose, no matter if you put Jesus Christ himself as his running mate, you’ve now given people excuses to say, ‘Look what happens when you put a woman on.’”

The financial scandals which plagued Ferraro are nothing compared to the sexual brouhaha which surrounds the fictitious Laine Hanson (a plum role created for his favorite actress, Joan Allen, who he believes possesses a “natural sense of dignity”). Lurie insists that the events of the film — congressional hearings used as a partisan-driven sexual witch-hunt — have less to do with Bill Clinton frolicking in the White House than the perception of women as powerful political figures.

“The common denominator,” he explains, “of the great women leaders in the world — Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir — is that they’re dramatically nonsexual. I think our nation cannot stomach the notion of a woman in sexual terms whatsoever: that we are so puritanical that we cannot dismiss the notion of sex from our minds when it comes to women.”

In The Contender, the confirmation committee is chaired by a right-wing congressman, and “every question that he asks puts into the mind of the American people sex — their leader in bed with somebody — and they can’t stomach it.

“We have to get over it,” continues Lurie, jumping back into real-world politics. “Right now, we have nine female senators, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, in four to eight years, we get it together. Because to me it’s repulsive that we’re looking at India and Great Britain and Israel, and those are the nations that have had female leaders and we don’t?”

That fact often blurs with fiction is no surprise to Lurie, but the nomination of Joseph Lieberman was. Lurie’s first film, Deterrence, follows a Jewish-American president (an appointed VP who assumes the office after the popular incumbent’s death) as he must decide whether to employ nuclear weapons against an aggressive, obstinate Iraq.

Although he declares Lieberman (an outspoken Hollywood detractor) “a little too rabbinical for me,” Lurie openly wonders if, despite public acceptance, it’s not a choice that could hurt the Democrats when Americans find themselves alone with their ballots and prejudices.

“Unfortunately, in this country,” says Lurie, “when we have the opportunity to be bigots in private, we take it every time.”

The Contender, Rod Lurie hopes, will stir up heated debate about our political process, and remind jaded Americans of the idealism which prompts flawed individuals to pursue public office. From his relatively new role as creator — and not just interpreter — of popular entertainment, Lurie is unafraid to let his conscience be his guide.

“We make movies,” he asserts, “to endorse our own personal feelings. I am not, in fact, a documentary filmmaker. I’ve got my personal beliefs and I’m ready to put them out on the table.”

Serena Donadoni writes about film and visual culture for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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