Rated R - Running Time: 2:06 - Released 10/13/00
I was beginning to think I had become so jaded as a film critic, I was incapable of ever really enjoying a movie again. I am proved pleasantly wrong with The Contender, a presidential drama rich with good performances, pleasing cinematography, good direction, and a high-calibre script. Written and directed by former journalist Rod Lurie, whose 1998 feature debut Deterrence, which also bore a presidential theme, drew mixed reviews, The Contender shows that he is working toward producing a more credible result with his sophomore outing.
The film centers around vice-presidential designate Senator
Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), a former Republican chosen by Democratic
President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) to be the first woman in
history to fill the recently-deceased V.P.'s spot. Things may
not be as rosy as the White House garden, however: her confirmation
hearing is to be presided over by Republican Shelly Runyon (Gary
Oldman), who has a grudge against Hanson for switching parties,
and against President Evans for soundly beating him in the most
recent election. Runyon's choice for Vice President is Virginia
Governor Jack Hathaway (William L. Petersen), but thanks to an
unfortunate incident in which Hathaway is unable to save a woman
from drowning, the president fears a Chappaquiddick-type scandal,
and decides to appoint Hanson instead.
Soon after the confirmation hearing begins, things turn ugly.
Runyon's staff, including freshman Representative Reginald Webster
(Christian Slater), find some dirt on Hanson: according to several
sources, Hanson willingly participated in a gangbang while a freshman
in college in order to be admitted to a sorority. Her alleged
"sex show" is revealed in photos, in testimony of former
college classmates, and even on video. Although her face is never
clearly seen, everyone agrees that it was indeed the V.P. designate
who is getting down and dirty in the pictures. The resulting scandal
rocks the hearing, the White House, and the nation, while Sen.
Hanson doggedly refuses to dignify the charges with an answer.
Like the many presidential flicks to come along in recent years
(Wag The Dog, Primary
The Contender attempts to reveal not only the insider's
view of the political process, but our nation's ravenous obsession
with scandal and the attempt on the part of politicians to exploit
it for political gain. The truth is, Runyon doesn't care about
Senator Hanson's sexual history, he wants her out because she
is a "turncoat" to the Republican party and a "cancer
of liberalism." But he knows that the only way to get his
political wish is to drag her name through the dirt. Lurie's screenplay
is interesting from various points of view, including work done
by several members of both parties, attempting attacks and counter
attacks as the hearing goes on. It's an interesting look at the
intricate chess game of politics, where the creation of a scandal,
and the reaction to it, are carefully orchestrated for the necessary
In addition to the fascinating script, Lurie uses interesting
camera work and memorable images as a backdrop for his story.
And the performances are first-rate. Allen, who has done good
supporting work in films like Nixon and Pleasantville,
distinguishes herself well in the leading role. Excellent supporting
performances by Bridges, Oldman (who also executive- produced
the film), and Slater add a great deal of depth, not to mention
Sam Elliott as the president's top aide in the crisis.
The Contender has renewed my faith that good movies can indeed be produced if enough care is given to the production. It's too bad so many of 2000's films have failed to do that. *****
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