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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

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Review by Steve Rhodes
4 stars out of 4

In Washington, duplicity runs deep. But, in THE CONTENDER, the extremely impressive second feature film by writer and director Rod Lurie (DETERRENCE), there is at least one politician for whom principles are more important than politics, even if her integrity costs her the honor of being the nation's first female vice president. Speaking of honors, expect to see this political thriller and morality tale garner many well deserved Oscar nominations including, but not limited to, Best Actress (Joan Allen) and Best Supporting Actor (Gary Oldman).

Ohio Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) is a Republican turned Democrat and an avowed atheist. She may not believe in God, but she certainly has an unfailing commitment to her principles. "Principles only mean something if you stick to them when it's inconvenient," she explains with utter sincerity. She may or may not be the next vice president, and it is her adherence to her principles that seems likely to come between her and the job she so desires. Allen, in a consistently strong performance, never lets Senator Hanson dissolve into self-righteousness. She gives a sympathetic performance that doesn't require sympathy to admire.

The elected vice president died six weeks ago, so President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) has to choose a successor. Knowing that 300 FBI agents investigated Nelson Rockefeller, the only other vice presidential replacement, President Evans wants to make his choice carefully. But it's more than that. Six years into office, the president views the choice as his "swan song."

The sharply written script mixes heavy drama with sweet comedy. The president, for example, not having to run again, is kicking back and really enjoying the trappings of his office. He brags that he can order absolutely anything he wants 24 hours a day, and he can never stump his chef. He even has a bowling ball with the presidential seal engraved on it, which he uses in his own private bowling alley. It's a great life, and he's making the most of it. Bridges's charismatic performance is full of nuances and subtlety that leaves us never quite sure of his motivations.

As the story opens, popular Senator Jack Hathaway (William L. Petersen) seems to be the likely nominee, especially after his daring attempted rescue of a girl whose car goes into the lake near where he is fishing. Surprisingly, the President brushes his candidacy aside, claiming that someone might decide that his heroism was actually another Chappaquidick episode. This sets up Senator Hathaway to be the shadow candidate for those opposed to the president's eventual nominee, Senator Hanson.

The president's long-time nemesis, Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), ends up chairing the nomination hearings. Looking like a nerdish version of Roberto Benigni (LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL), Runyon's body shakes nervously and his upper lip perspires profusely when he presides over his committee. The congressman is at once utterly polite and completely devious. When he uncovers a college sex scandal involving Senator Hanson, he salivates at the possibilities and doesn't shy away. He and his fellow conspirators brag to themselves that they are going "to obliterate a life." Runyon's wife worries, with good reason, that "he will go down as a second-rate Joe McCarthy." No matter how unlikable Runyon becomes, Oldman never lets him dissolve into caricature.

In a great, one-dimensional part, Sam Elliott plays Kermit Newman, the president's hard-nosed Chief of Staff. When the scandal breaks, Newman screams his demands. He wants dirt on Runyon, immediately: "Little boys, midgets, cows," whatever they can find. His approach, however, isn't the one that Senator Hanson feels comfortable with. She wants to talk nothing but policy at her hearings -- the usual liberal litany of ban all handguns, abolish the death penalty and guarantee a woman's right to choose. She specifically refuses to dignify with any response the accusation that she "put on a sex show" in college. After all, she reasons, if she were a man, no one would care about how many women she had slept with in college.

All of the casting in this ensemble effort is terrific. Christian Slater is good as a naive and ambitious young congressman who, in a career enhancing attempt, negotiates his way onto the nominating committee. Like a minnow swimming with sharks, he seems in constant danger.

Lurie's staging is masterful, even if sometimes a bit over the top. As Congressman Runyon denounces Senator Hanson to the world -- "Laine Hanson is a cancer!" -- we watch her jog through a military cemetery and pass the Iwo Jima monument to the brave boys who fought for our freedom.

The beauty of the story is that we keep waiting for more shoes to drop. Some of them do, but others we expect to, don't. And still others drop, but turn out not to be what we expect. My only complaint is that one key twist is needlessly telegraphed.

"You are an enigma...," the president says to Hanson, his would-be vice president, late in the story. Interrupting him, she completes the famous quote, "wrapped in a riddle." The movie itself is no enigma. Its principles are crystal clear and dramatically demonstrated. THE CONTENDER is ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN for our time.

THE CONTENDER runs 2:05. It is rated R for strong sexual content and language and would be fine for most teenagers.

Copyright 2000 Steve Rhodes

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