“The Contender” is an intelligent, effective Hollywood movie. A perfect film? No. The best film of the year? Not even close. This is not what I’m saying. Let’s go back to my opening statement and review it word by word.
The Contender : Meet Laine Anderson (Joan Allen), Democrat senator of the great state of Ohio, a competent representative who has paid her dues working her way up, and who’s now caught the attention of members of the party all the way to the White House. The Vice President has recently died, and President Jack Evans (Jeff Bridges) is considering her as a replacement. Yet it won’t be that easy. Not only would it make history, but naming a woman to be only second to the Commander in Chief would also mean that the position wouldn’t go to some more obvious, more influent, male potential candidates. Like Congressman Hathaway (Will Pettersen) for instance, who not only has a near perfect record but who also just became a national hero after jumping selflessly in a river in which a young woman had just driven her car to try and save her. Well, she unfortunately drowned anyway but still, the man did everything he could and many think he should get the big seat for it. Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) thinks so, and he heads the confirmation committee in charge of approving the next VP. He himself is a radical Republican, but he’d rather have an experienced Democrat in office than some woman whom he believes was picked just because of her gender. Runyon is determined to do what he feels is right for the country, even if he has to ruin Hanson’s reputation with personal attacks in the process. And when he stumbles upon old photographs of frat guys gang banging a young woman who may or may not have been Senator Hanson, he goes out to the hearing ready to spread the sleaze extra thick…
Is, An : Now, don’t be a smartass. Next…
Intelligent : Yes, this is a film that has something to say and says it well. I limited my plot summary to what you already know from the trailer, but know that this isn’t some low brow political sex thriller. That situation is only the starting point of film critic turned writer-director Rod Lurie’s passionate exploration of modern American politics. It discusses real issues while giving us an idea of how the Clinton scandal may have been unleashed and how it has been handled by elected officials, spin masters and media types. No judgement is made regarding the sexual incidents, but what is said is that it shouldn’t be any of the business of anyone but the people involved. “The Contender” is a thinking man (or woman)’s movie, but it’s also interesting on a human level. The characters are complex and well written, and Lurie writes sharp dialogue for them, as well as a couple of big speeches that are bound to make anyone with a liberal mind go ‘Hell yeah!’. I’m not even American and the movie ignited my sense of patriotism!
Effective : Good writing is one thing, but this being a movie as opposed to a novel, the direction also plays a big part on whether or not it succeeds. This is only Lurie’s second film, but you already sense that he knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t go for show-offy camera gymnastics but steps back and lets the people on screen engage us. This non-intrusiveness gives the film a realistic feel. This could happen. This is happening! Lurie also knows about pacing. He spends enough time with his characters for us to get involved but moves the story swiftly enough to keep us on our toes. Better yet, Lurie gets the best out of his cast. Joan Allen is superb in the lead, and another Oscar nod wouldn’t be surprising, but it’s the supporting cast that makes the most lasting impression. Jeff Bridges seems to be having a ball as a Clinton-style President in his last term who’s gotten a tad too comfortable in the White House. He hosts meetings in his private bowling alley, orders quirky treats like shark steak sandwiches around the clock, and spends too much time wondering about what his legacy will be. Next to him always is Sam Elliot (who also acted with Bridges in “The Big Lebowski”, in a completely different register of course!), very good as the President’s adviser, one of the few who doesn’t sugar coat for the Pres and the guy who tears people a new one so his boss doesn’t have to.
Christian Slater’s good too as an idealistic young Democrat unafraid to side with the Republicans in their opposition to Senator Laine to follow his convictions, but then again he’s almost completely overshadowed by Gary Oldman. As a self-righteous far right radical out to destroy the career of a woman, it would be easy to corner his character as the villain. Yet Oldman has been saying in interviews that he believes he plays the good guy in the movie. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s true that the film does give reasonable motivations for Oldman’s actions. His methods are rather despicable, but that’s the way politics are played these days. In any case, we can’t all agree on everything and hey, it makes for interesting debates and it brings drama to the picture.
Hollywood : Indeed, this is a big American picture, therefore you can’t ask it to be anything else. You could argue that the score hams it up too much, with musical cues punctuating the key moments. Or that Lurie uses manipulative, bait-and-switch methods to trick us, cheating a little to make us think one thing only to reveal that everything isn’t as it seems. But that only brings us to the last word:
Movie : Exactly. In the end, “The Contender” is just that. A movie, no more no less. Great entertainment, but also a vehicle for ideas. It grabbed me from the get-go and kept me entertained and thinking throughout. And at the very end, when Lurie dedicates his film “to our daughters”, it made me think some more on my way out. Hence the four star rating: “The Contender” is an intelligent, effective Hollywood movie.