A treat for a nation weaned on tawdry political scandal, televised House Judiciary hearings and The West Wing, this smart political thriller gets pulses pounding with no pyrotechnics and only one car crash. And it's a doozy: An wayward sedan careens off a bridge right where Governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), who's been tapped by Democratic president Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) to fill the spot left vacant by the recently deceased veep, happens to be fishing. He's unable to save the woman who's trapped inside, and even though Hathaway's heroics send his approval ratings through the roof, his nomination is nevertheless withdrawn by a president nervous about having a potential Chappaquidick on his hands. Evans nominates Ohio senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) instead, but getting her confirmed by the House Judiciary Committee is going to be a problem. The committee is headed by Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), a truculent Republican congressman with a bone to pick with Evans and an even bigger grudge against Hanson, whom he considers incompetent; he'll stop at nothing to have her discredited. Runyon's big chance comes when a background check uncovers something very nasty from Madame Senator's distant past, something that threatens not only her confirmation but her entire political career. Taut, intelligent and marvelously acted (there may be a few too many characters on hand, but there's not a bum performance among them), the film marks a giant step forward for former film critic Rod Lurie, whose previous directorial effort, DETERRENCE, fell far short of its ambitions. Not so here: His script is full of crackling dialogue, and, despite a cloying denouement that would have made Frank Capra gag, it serves as an eloquent response to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. The film marks a groundbreaking moment for Allen as well: Amazingly, this is her first starring role in a feature film, and she's smashing.