Directed by Rod Lurie, starring Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges and William Petersen

When his second in command dies suddenly, US President Jackson Evans (Bridges) is faced with a not-so-clear cut choice between the gung-ho people's favourite Jack Hathaway (Petersen) and a longshot who might just rouse Washington from an extended catnap. Wanting his term to be remembered for more than just his fondness for the White House pantry, Evans opts for Laine Hanson (Allen), an Ohio senator who once stood for the Republicans but who couldn't reconcile her views with those of the party. The nomination draws wrath from both sides, most notably her former colleague Shelly Runyon (Oldman), a salty Midwesterner who sets out to do everything in his power to make sure Hanson doesn't put a foot on the Oval doormat. And when pictures 'emerge' of the senator apparently getting the most out of her free lovin' 60's college days, it seems that Runyon may have all the ammunition he needs.

The verbal salvos fired between Lurie and Oldman (who was also the film's Executive Producer) since The Contender's release have proved to be just as vicious as those onscreen, with Oldman saying that his character has been depicted as the villain of the piece and the director charging that stars develop Stockholm syndrome in their assessments of their onscreen characters. But not even this cat-scratch warfare can take away from the accomplishments onscreen: a big fan of 70's corridors of power tours like 'The Candidate' and 'All The President's Men', former film critic Lurie weaves an engrossing tale of string pulling and backstabbing as the selection committee settle down to decide on whether Hanson is right for the job. And no one is as perfect as they look on TV - Hathaway might not be the have-a-go hero who tried to save a young woman from a car crash and Hanson might be the woman who stole her best friend's man. The fun is trying to guess which way Evans will jump, at first backing Hanson's stance that the past is the past and has no bearing on her ability to be Vice-President, then stepping back as Runyon grows in strength.

Through it all Allen is superb, having long ago cornered the role of put-upon women, she plays Hanson with just the right amount of ambition and sensitivity, no whites but lots of grey. There are some terrific exchanges with Oldman across a mahogany table, with his wiry performance a masterclass in venom. Watching it all with a sandwich and the remote control is Bridges' laconic President, the man who only opts for combat when he can dictate the terms, and whose course of action proves to be the major plot twist.

Once it arrives however, is where 'The Contender' drops from great to good. For a film which is all about not taking the easy way out Lurie does exactly that with a chest-beating finale that falls somewhere between the mission statement of a right-on clothing company and the idealism someone spouts after a few too many cocktails at a dinner party. Leave ten minutes early and you'll see the best White House film in years, stick around and get the big screen version of 'The West Wing'. No contest really.

Harry Guerin