The Contender

Laura Clifford
Robin Clifford

The Vice President of the United States is dead and President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) is being pressed from all sides to replace the deceased politico. Governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen) seems like a shoe-in for the nations number two spot, especially after he performs a heroic rescue attempt while on a fishing holiday. But, the president has different plans and unceremoniously rejects Hathaway in favor of Senator Laine Billings Hanson (Joan Allen), who could be the first female vice president, ever, in "The Contender."

Writer/director Rod Lurie takes on a subject that is reminiscent of the political films of the 60's, especially Otto Preminger's "Advise and Consent." The older film also dealt with a political appointment to a powerful government post - Henry Fonda vying for the Secretary of State, then, versus Joan Allen shooting for the VP slot now. The 1962 film was made at the height of the Red Scare, so the plot revolved around the political morality of right against left, with a strong, almost preachy, moral message. "The Contender" brings us into the new millennium with a very different kind of political tale, but with a hint of the ethics of a bygone era.

Lurie's screenplay cuts right to the chase from the start. Governor Hathaway's vain but brave attempt to save a young woman from drowning makes him appear to be the perfect nominee for VP. He's surprised, even shocked, when White House Chief of Staff Kermit Newman declares that the rescue effort would be compared, by the public, to Ted Kennedy and Chappaquidic. The president thanks him, declares the governor "the future of the party," and nearly boots him out of the Oval Office. Evans says, "I need a VP" and demands that Laine Hanson get the nomination.

A woman vice president is a hard pill to swallow for those - men - in power. Newman questions his boss's stubbornly held decision to back Hanson. Even more formidable, senior Congressman Sheldon Runyon (Gary Oldman), who heads the committee tasked to investigate the nominee, has his own agenda. Shelly knows, in his heart, that Hanson is not the right person for the job that is a heartbeat away from the presidency. He is joined by a freshman congressman, Reginald Webster (Christian Slater), who is looking to make the right connections and sees the senior politician as his means to an end. The search for the dirt that will bury Laine's chances for VP begins in earnest.

Runyon's investigation of Hanson's past uncovers some sordid evidence from her college days. The photos that come to the surface show a young woman who looks like Laine performing sex with two men. Even as the photos are entered into the official records of the committee hearing, they are leaked onto the Internet in an effort to gain public opposition to Hanson's appointment. Sen. Hanson refuses to even bother denying the accusations as they are beneath her dignity. As the committee continues its inquisition of Hanson, Runyon tries to build upon his accusation of sexual deviance by introducing questions about Laine's positions on birth control, adultery, abortion and switching political parties. Hanson maintains her unshakable dignity throughout as the political intrigues build around her.

It's not just hearings and smutty pictures, though, as Lurie builds his characters into complex people. Good and bad are not simple concepts and there is complexity in the minds and hearts of the characters. Actually, the talented cast puts flesh on the bones of his characters, giving each a nuance that make them unique individual. This is not a film that draws its images and people in black and white.

Joan Allen, for the first time in all of her respectable career, is the center of attention in "The Contender" and she proves her capability as a first rate actor quite able to control the center stage. Even though there is "proof" of her sexual indiscretions, Laine maintains her stand on her record, not on denying some foggy accusations. Allen gives her role the dignity that befits the honest senator. You know she knows that she has what it takes to do the job, she just has to get past the sordid side of politics to get that job. Allen is forceful and dynamic in her performance as a woman who grew up in politics (her father, played by Philip Baker Hall, is a highly respected ex-governor) and gained her own respect in the Senate. If anyone is going to break in to the male dominated Executive Branch, Laine Hanson is the one to do it. There aren't many "best actress" perfs so far this year. Allen's is one of them.

Allen's fine performance is supplemented by some terrifically effective supporting characters. Jeff Bridges is a wonderful enigma as the president. Jackson Evans is in the waning years of his successful, two-term presidency and is comfortable as can be in his position as world leader. Bridges gives a relaxed, confident performance and comes across as very presidential, indeed. Evans is in charge of a smooth running government machine and has the best running it. The president can even partake in a bit of frivolity as he has a ongoing challenge to try and stump the White House chef by asking for shark steak sandwiches or walnut pudding with nary a moment's notice. Bridges also gives a touch of elegance to the role, especially when decked out in his splendid custom wardrobe, which I'll get to later.

Gary Oldman, whom I think is one of the great character actors alive today, is simply superb as the outwardly slimy Sheldon Runyon. The powerful congressman comes across as unscrupulous in his diligent attacks on Sen. Hanson. But, Oldman gives Shelly a level of complexity that makes you understand his motivations. He is not a bad man and his opposition of the nomination is based on firmly held political convictions. He believes, as he puts it, "this nomination is the cancer of affirmative action" and this is his motivation in opposing the president's wishes. Oldman, with some really bad hair and an equally bad wardrobe, also gives a dead-on Midwestern accent and makes you forget that you're watching an actor.

Sam Elliot is executive office material as the president's chief of staff. He is the Greek chorus in the White House and openly opposes his boss on his selection for VP. But, he is loyal above all and, when the die is cast, he stands firmly behind President Evans. Christian Slater has a small, pivotal role as the frosh rep Webster. When we meet the ambitious young man, he aligns himself with Runyon, looking only for political advancement. As the truth, and Laine's integrity, comes to the surface, Webster changes and grows to support the President. It's a nice touch showing a newly elected politician learning the importance of personal honor.

The first rate production shows artistic imagination. Costuming by Matthew Jacobsen provides the right tailoring for the president and gives Allen an elegant look in business suits and evening gowns. Production designer Alexander Hammond does a beautiful job in recreating the Oval Office and the floor of Congress. Denis Maloney's crisp lensing adds another plus to the proceedings.

One problem, kind of a big one, with the script is an important development concerning Governor Hathaway. I won't give it away, but suspension of disbelief is required of us to accept an out-of-nowhere plot twist. It detracts from the overall quality of the story. Nonetheless, "The Contender" is a solid political thriller with old-fashioned concepts packaged in a slick, well-made container. I give it a B+.

Former film critic Rod Lurie breaks the 'those who can't, teach' maxim by writing and directing "The Contender," a pungent political drama with roots in Otto Preminger's 1962 film "Advise and Consent."

The President (Jeff Bridges, wonderfully funny AND presidential) needs to elect a new VP and chooses Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen, "Pleasantville") because he wants to get a woman in high office as part of his Democratic legacy. In doing so, he's overlooking the popular Governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen, "To Live and Die in LA"), who's just become a media darling for trying to save a woman from drowning. Unfortunately, the chairman of the house committee that must pass the veep's nomination is Congressman Shelly Runyon (an almost unrecognizable Gary Oldman) who's both a political foe of President Jackson Evans and one of Hathaway's best friends. He uncovers a sex scandal (a drunken gang bang) from Laine's college days and leaks it. Laine refuses to acknowledge the story by either confirmation or denial, stating that it's no one's business. The frustrated President continues to back her, although it's clear Runyon is winning the battle and Hathaway hovers in the wings.

This complex drama showcases the political process with all it's gameplay centered with the issue of the right to privacy vs. the right to know. There are thriller elements mostly represented by the character of FBI Agent Wilhemina (Kathryn Morris) whose personal agenda is unclear while she investigates Senator Hanson.

Lurie's screenplay keeps us off base, never sure of characters' true motivations. He makes clever associations with character development as well. We're introduced to Laine as she's enjoying a passionate interlude atop her office desk with her husband, campaign manager William (Robin Thomas), so sex is implanted in our minds with the main character at the onset. The President and his opponent are both food obsessed, with the President humorously trying to stump the White House chef (requests for shark steak sandwiches and hazelnut pudding are an amusing sideline, if done once too often) while Runyon is shown devouring rare steaks. Senator Hathaway's attemptto save a woman whose car plummets from a bridge into a river is the anti-Chappaquiddick. Laine's remark that President Clinton was 'responsible but not guilty,' is later echoed in reverse by her mentor. Lurie's screenplay is solid all the way, except for a major plot twist that's too perfunctorily coincidental to hold water.

The cast is fabulous. Joan Allen has a firm grip on her first lead role (Lurie wrote the screenplay for her). She's clear eyed and strong through overwhelming adversity, always sticking to her principles whatever the country believes of her morals. I'm sure she'll be remembered when Oscar nominations are awarded. Gary Oldman paints a complex, old world politician, who'll pull any trick in the book to force his agenda. He clearly believes he's doing right, however. The film's 'bad guy' is just not that black and white in the hand of this actor. The vastly underrated Jeff Bridges gives the film's most purely entertaining performance as a down to earth President who doesn't showboat his intellect.

Christian Slater plays a young and idealistic congressman who compaigns to join Runyon's committee, only to have his eyes opened by what he learns from the inside. He hasn't been this good since his early teenage films. William Petersen plays Hathaway as the modern equivalent of a good ol' governer with a knack for heroism and ambitions stoked by a nagging wife. Sam Elliott is brusquely outspoken and loyal as the Chief of Staff, who may disagree with Evans' support of Hanson (or any woman), but stays the course. Saul Rubinek fades into the woodwork as the communications officer. Philip Baker Hall appears in one scene as Laine's Republican father and former state Governor. Kathryn Morris makes an impression as the chirpy FBI investigator.

Technically the film is top notch, with Denis Maloney's urgent photography keeping the audience in the midst of the action. Costume design by Matthew Jacobsen (who utilizes designers such as Armani, John Galliano, Pamela Dennis and Brooks Brothers) is notable as well.

"The Contender" is slated to be a real contender itself when year 2000's film lists are tallied.


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