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The Contender   B

DreamWorks Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Rod Lurie
Writer: Rod Lurie
Cast: Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, Sam Elliot, William Peterson, Mariel Hemingway, Kathryn Morris.

Review by Rob Vaux

In an era where political films have become increasingly commonplace, The Contender has its work cut out for it. Not only must it present a plausible scenario of Inside-the-Beltway power struggles, but it must do so in a way that doesn't trod on any of its recent predecessors. Quite a tightrope act, especially for a film with clear Oscar aspirations. It has a propensity for manipulativeness which keeps it from the loftiest heights, but all other ways remains an impressive piece of work.

The eye of The Contender's particular political storm is the appointment of a new U.S. Vice President, following the death of the previous veep. After weeks of debate, President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) -- in the sixth year of his term and looking for a final flourish to his legacy -- selects Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) for the spot. The move ruffles more than a few feathers. For one thing, Senator Hanson is a recent convert, having turned from the Republican Party to Evan's own Democrats. For another, he passes over the extremely popular Governor Hathaway (William Peterson) who made national news for his attempted rescue of a drowning woman. Hathaway has some powerful friends in Congress, including Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), the chairman in charge of Hanson's confirmation hearings. Runyon dedicates himself to dragging Hanson down by any means necessary, turning what was intended as a smooth transition into a nasty media bloodbath.

As a political film, The Contender shows a great deal of courage by playing it straight. Most of the best recent films in the genre have been satires: Bulworth, Wag the Dog, even Primary Colors had an air of puckishness to it. Not so here. Everything is presented with stony-faced solemnity and writer/director Rod Lurie leaves himself wide open to cynical jabs from the audience. It's a credit to the picture that it holds up so well, especially considering how melodramatic the action appears at times. Things here are cast in fairly black and white terms, with the noble Hanson standing resolute against the fiendish Runyon and his increasingly vicious assaults. Not the sort of starkness you'd expect with this sort of material. Still, Lurie has the proper eye for Machiavellian manipulation, and keeps things moving with plenty of juicy interplay. He also makes references to real-life politicians, including some direct commentary on Bill Clinton's impeachment (Hanson was apparently serving in the Senate at the time, making for a surreal fiction/reality crossover). Such allusions add a needed air of realism to the proceedings, and help keep the more melodramatic elements in check.

The cast is nothing less than stellar, from Christian Slater's eager beaver congressmen to Bridge's smoothly manipulative president. Sam Elliot takes a break from playing cowboys for a well-cast turn as the President's chief of staff and Oldman sheds a lengthy spate of scenery-chewing roles for something real and substantive; he's invisible beneath Runyon's perfectly realized zealotry. Amid these heavy-hitters, a relative unknown stands out: Kathryn Morris, playing an investigating FBI agent with a wonderful spin on the old Columbo routine. But at the end of the day, the film belongs to Allen. All of the tension, all of the interest in this story, lies in watching her principled character cling to what she believes in under the most horrendous pressures. Allen brings painful believability to every scene she's in, whether it's sparring with Runyon on the confirmation floor or defying the very president who placed her in the running. Without her intensity, The Contender is nothing more than an amusing dramatic exercise.

If anything can sum up this film, it's the impassioned speech which Bridges gives towards the end of the proceedings. His words are fiery and dramatic, wallowing in theatrics but also displaying a lot of courage. Most movies of this type have speeches like that, and they remain enticing despite their cornier aspects. Real-life politicians rarely take gutsy stands. They never make a call that could cost them their career, or risk their positions for the sake of an abstract idea. The Contender wants us to believe that they should take stands like that, and despite a few missteps, ultimately makes us think that they can.

Review published 10.20.2000.

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