The Contender
review by Dan Lybarger, 13 October 2000

Former critic Rod Lurieís The Contender plays like two very different movies awkwardly grafted together. Most of the film is an intimate look at the creepy process of assigning lofty offices (in this case, the vice-presidency). Itís as if the audience is allowed to catch the moments of the Watergate and Abscam scandals when there were no microphones in the room. The conclusion, however, panders to viewers like a fawning politician. By aiming so hard to please, Lurie winds up alienating the crowd instead.

Bismarck once said that there were two things a person is better off not knowing: how sausages and laws are made. The appointment process isnít much prettier. The Contender works best when it boisterously celebrates this ugliness. Through much of the movie, itís like watching the emotional equivalent of grisly car wreck;  no one gets maimed onscreen, but the damage is just as real. In the near future, President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski) has the unenviable task of picking an occupant for Air Force Two. The previous veep has just died, and after two weeks anticipation is high. Evans surprises several pundits when he rejects popular governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen) in favor of Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). Hathaway, like Evans, is a Democratic Party stalwart and has made headlines for trying unsuccessfully to save a young woman from drowning in an auto accident. Evans, however, selects Hanson despite the fact that she used to be a Republican. Evan, who is obsessed with his legacy (as well as the fact that he can order any conceivable dish from the White House kitchen), wants to set a precedent by picking the first female vice president.

He encounters a formidable roadblock when he crosses House Judiciary Chairman Shelly Runyan (Gary Oldman). Runyan has dozens of reasons for crushing the Hansonís nomination. Heís bitter about losing the presidency to Evans, distrusts Hanson because she switched parties and believes her designation is merely showboating on Evansí part. To derail her candidacy, Runyan launches a massive smear campaign. Rumors about Hansonís sexual past pop up on web sites and even crawl into the confirmation hearings. During these moments, The Contender brims with a deliciously dark humor. While appearing cordial, Allen and Runyan are at each otherís throats. Paid to be liked, none of these Washingtonians ever say what they are thinking. Listening to fixer Kermit Newman (slyly played by Sam Elliott) flatly reject Governor Hathaway but tells him that heís "the future of the Democratic Party" is like learning a new language. Itís fun to try to decode what these folks are actually conveying.

Unlike a lot critics who step behind the camera (try to sit through Chris Gore and Roger Ebertís lame attempts at filmmaking), Lurie knows what heís doing. He has coaxes terrific performances from his entire cast. Bridges is especially fun. One wonders if we elected the wrong thespian President. Even some of the minor turns are memorable. Thereís an interesting sequence where Mariel Hemingway plays a reluctant witness during the hearings. She stumbles in front of the camera and the microphones as if sheís never had to deal with them before. Itís a credit to both Hemingway and Lurie that they can make a star cameo that doesnít proceed like a distraction. One also wishes the Anita Hill and "Zippergate" scandals were as well written as when Runyan advises a junior Congressman, "Take out your dictionary, and cross the out the word Ďobjectivity.í"

Because of the skill that Lurie demonstrates, the tidy conclusion is a betrayal. His appeal to the better side of human nature is out of character with the rest of the film. Itís sad to admit, but these protagonists are more fun when theyíre nasty. When Hanson states her views on issues, Larry Groupťís music swells loudly. What had once been a seductive insiderís view of power degenerates into a flat polemic. In addition, Lurie adds some lame surprise endings. Some of which donít conform to the data heís presented to the spectators earlier. Itís as if Lurie had lost faith in his vision and in the audienceís ability to stomach it.

With all that Lurie and his cast get right, there is still much to recommend The Contender. Nonetheless, one walks out of the film with the same queasy feeling that accompanies having voted for a candidate who backed out of a tough promise.

Written and
Directed by:

Rod Lurie

Starring:
Joan Allen Gary Oldman Jeff Bridges Sam Elliott Christian Slater William L. Petersen Philip Baker Hall Saul Rubinek Mike Binder Robin Thomas

FULL CREDITS

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