Along with Jodie Foster and other Hollywood stars, "Contact" has the most unusual supporting actor of the season: President Clinton, who appears in video footage at several key points in the story.
This revives a trick used by director Robert Zemeckis in "Forrest Gump," which is considerably more ambitious along these lines. Through techniques borrowed from Woody Allen's comedy "Zelig," the hero of the 1994 hit appears to talk with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and to witness various historical events. "Contact" extends the device to feature a chief executive actually in office as the movie is released.
The use of Mr. Clinton's video image also ties in with various clips of bogus CNN footage, using journalists like Larry King and Bernard Shaw to announce developments in the fictional story as if they were real events.
How was Clinton's image integrated into the movie? In an age of high-tech Hollywood wizardry, the method is surprisingly obvious. Perhaps disappointed by technical glitches in the similar "Forrest Gump" scenes - where faces and voices didn't match up well - Zemeckis has kept things basic this time, merely appropriating file footage of Clinton speeches. The only aspect that couldn't be duplicated with a living-room VCR is the occasional appearance of Clinton and a "Contact" character in the same shot; but commonplace "morphing" technology makes such prestidigitation routine in today's studios.
Techniques aside, do these video interludes help the movie's entertainment value? Zemeckis clearly hopes our association of TV with immediate, on-the-spot news coverage will boost the film's believability.
But viewers who felt "Forrest Gump" presented a slanted, falsified version of American history used the film's camera tricks as evidence of its willingness to blur fact and fantasy. Similar charges could be made against "Contact" by moviegoers who think the story's most important theme - the relationship of science and religion - is best explored away from gimmicky editing and visual sleight of hand.
Others will simply find the whole thing distracting. "Contact" preview screenings have been disrupted by laughter at too-frequent cutaways to famous faces uttering portentous words. In short, don't bet on Bill Clinton in next year's Oscar race.