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The Contender

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Contender

Starring: Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges
Director: Rod Lurie
Rated: R
RunTime: 126 Minutes
Release Date: October 2000
Genres: Drama, Suspense

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Some twenty years ago I was having a discussion at lunch with some colleagues. One guy piped up about how the Europeans don't care what their government leaders' sex lives are like and in fact may even prefer their prime ministers and presidents to play around. Then he added, "I think I'd rather have a president who enjoys fooling around than one who's straight and narrow. I want the guy with his finger on the button to enjoy his life so that he thinks quite a lot before he pushes it!" Well said. Now Rod Lurie, who wrote and directed "The Contender"--which deals with a woman fighting to be confirmed in Congress as vice president--frames that outlook in a wittier way. Says candidate Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) to the man who nominated her, "You don't want a woman with a finger on the button who isn't getting laid."

Lurie's political thriller, which appears to be inspired by our current leader's peccadilloes, is about sex and power, about how in at least one situation the two most consequential aspects of life become intertwined when, in Lurie's view, they should not be. Lurie--who has more or less stated in an interview that the game of politics is to him what the super bowl is to a bunch of all-American TV spectators--showed his preoccupation with the sport in making the claustrophobic, low-budget film "Deterrence" just months before. While the subject matter of that work is broadly similar to that of "The Contender," the two are distinct. "Deterrence" would be valued by those who can believe that the president of the United States would decide to nuke Iraq from the comfort of a rural coffee shop during a blinding snowstorm in Aztec, Colorado amid a cacophony of varied opinions from the short- order cook, the waitress and customers. Enjoying a much larger budget in his current offering, Lurie has turned out a mostly plausible drama which, despite going out on a schmaltzy limb toward the conclusion, is eminently enjoyable and features Oscar-worthy acting by Joan Allen as the eponymous contender. Filmed mostly in Richmond, Virginia, "The Contender" affords the viewer some insight into the trappings of power--particularly when the president, as addicted to food as Bill Clinton, pushes the button labeled "chef," gets an immediate response, and orders everything from a shark sandwich on rye to an exotic oriental platter. He runs into trouble only when seeking a Muenster cheese sandwich, which the four-star chef is unable to prepare.

The story opens on a scene that may remind viewers of Ted Kennedy's unfortunate debacle at Chappaquiddick, an event that prevented the man from ever seeking the presidency. This time, however, the incident appears to push Governor Jack Hathaway (William L. Petersen) into the vice presidential nomination, as he heroically attempts to rescue a woman who had driven her car over a bridge into the water. When President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) nonetheless ignores the advice of his chief adviser Kermit Newman (Sam Elliott) by passing over the governor in favor of Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) is determined to squash Hanson's nomination and to convince the president to go with Hathaway.

Until the patriotic soundtrack during the final half hour becomes conspicuous--one which seems designed to get the audience to stand up in the aisles and salute the flag--"The Contender" is a credible, sincere and serious-minded work that gets us thinking about the importance of having high principles and sticking to them when the chips are down. Would you believe a politician would refuse to fight back against smarmy accusations that she had taken part in a drunken fraternity-house sex orgy during college days--simply because she believes that her private life is just that?

By making the characters' motivations ambiguous, Lurie avoids the temptation to push his film into melodramatic soap opera. While Congressman Runyon looks evil--Oldman has been given an unappealing haircut, an ugly pair of glasses, and looks piggish in scenes that take place across a dining room table--he is simply doing what a partisan politician does to defeat a candidate not of his liking in favor of a man he thinks would be better for the country. Lurie allows the 28- year-old Congressman Reginald Webster (Christian Slater) the will to turn from a young man who plays up to the big shots against his own principles into a guy who may sacrifice his chance for an cushy appointment when his conscience gets the better of him. Jeff Bridges is alternately funny (whenever he reminds us of our own president's predilection for McDonald's) and inspiring, but Joan Allen runs away with the honors as an individual who seems always to be thinking of sex (she's enjoying a round with her husband in her very first scene), but who in a less-than-saintly fashion may have been involved in a college gang-bang and in a home-breaking affair with her married campaign manager.

Pungent dialogue, solid ensemble performances, sharp editing that takes us quickly from one scene to the next, and Rod Lurie's ability to evoke the very best from his actors make "The Contender" a rousing--if sometimes too slick-- political film.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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