CONTENDER, THE(director/writer: Rod Lurie; cinematographer: Denis Maloney; editor: Michael Jablow; cast: Gary Oldman (Shelly Runyon), Joan Allen (Laine Hanson), Jeff Bridges (President Jackson Evans), Christian Slater (Reginald Webster), Sam Elliott (Kermit Newman), William Petersen (Jack Hathaway), Saul Rubinek (Jerry Toliver), Philip Baker Hall (Oscar Billings), Kristen Shaw (Fiona Hathaway), Robin Thomas (William Hanson), Mariel Hemingway (Cynthia Lee), Mike Binder (Lewis Hollis); Runtime: 132; DreamWorks Pictures; 2000)
“This film is a pro-Clinton one.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A thrilling but shamelessly manipulative political thriller, the second feature dealing with presidential politics from the director who was once a film critic, Rod Lurie (Deterrence). He has vastly honed his skills as a filmmaker in comparison with his debut film, which was a failure artistically and commercially.
“The Contender” is a film that is grounded in having a clear understanding of how politically underhanded and sly the system is and how those in it operate on a level that would make Machiavelli proud of them.
I was taken aback by how great the entire ensemble cast performed, with the leads being superb in getting the maximum out of their juicy roles, even if they have to chew the scenery to do it. The cast is so good that it overcomes the shrill oratory, the manipulative, obvious and unbelievable political situations, and an ending that tries to play it so safe, that it takes away the juice in the story that gave this film its power in the first place. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed it; even though, I knew it was a manipulative film trying to get me to bite at its revelations about the double-standards between men and women politicians, without giving me a fair chance to swallow everything without choking on what I was asked to swallow.
The film opens as President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges), a Bill Clinton type, is shown to be a politically savvy politician, more interested in working his political skills than he is in standing up for his issues. The film’s running gag being that he’s a glutton for food, which he spends more time at than on anything else, trying to test the White House kitchen staff by ordering exotic foods to see if he can catch them unprepared. This only occurs when he orders something ordinary — a Muenster cheese sandwich.
Due to the sudden death of the current VP, President Evans has to pick someone to fill the vacancy. The leading contender for the post is the ambitious governor of Virginia, Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), a loyal Democrat and a noted patriot, who is egged on to be more assertive by his shrewish wife (Kristen Shaw). Hathaway becomes a hero in one of the opening scenes, even though the woman he tried to save dies anyway. The accident occurred while he is on a fishing trip with a reporter and a car plunges off a bridge and an attractive woman drowns, but not before Hathaway bravely jumps into the water amid the reporter’s shouts of you don’t have to do it and risks his life trying to save her. There was something not right about that action. It will later on play an important part in the film’s plot.
The President’s choice for vice president is Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), an Ohio senator and a daughter of a former Republican governor. She is pro-choice, an atheist who recently switched parties from Republican to Democrat, and is an articulate, poised, and attractive candidate. She is divorced and currently married to her former campaign manager (Robin Thomas), and is the mother of a 6-year-old boy. The President taps her for the job because he wants to leave a legacy of him being the one who chose the first woman to hold that office.
In an interesting scene Hanson consults with her father (Philip Baker Hall) for his approval and advice, realizing that she will have a fight on her hands from the disappointed Hathaway. It also becomes apparent that Hanson’s a woman who enjoys sex. Hanson receives the President’s phone call, offering her the position, when she is in the middle of having sex with her husband. The film pulls no punches about Hanson being active sexually. It makes the viewer face the fact that a woman in high office is still a woman and has to be accepted for their sexuality just like a man in that position would be.
The heart of the film is the fight over Hanson’s confirmation and all the backroom maneuvering to get her the job. She faces opposition from Sheldon Runyon (Gary Oldman), the powerful McCarthyite-like congressman who will chair the confirmation hearings. Runyon is opposed to Hanson’s nomination because he wants to get even with the President for some other political battles they had and because he doesn’t like her views. Runyon finds ammunition for his opposition when he runs a private investigation on her, ala Starr, and finds evidence that when she was in college pledging for a sorority, she was allegedly having sex with two boys at a fraternity house as part of the initiation. He comes armed with photos of her in action and eyewitnesses. Runyon even leaks the story to the Internet, which posts the pictures so that television and the tabloids can pick it up. Hanson refuses to comment on the issue, taking the high moral ground, saying it is no one’s business but her own.
A sidebar to the story is about a 28-year-old freshman congressman from the small state of Delaware, Reginald Webster (Slater), who worms his way onto Runyon’s powerful committee by promising to support him 100 percent. He is supposed to be a young Bill Clinton-type, acting like he did when he first started his ambitious climb to the top. But when Webster sees the sleazy direction the confirmation hearings are going in and when called into the President’s office to be bullied, Webster is overawed by the power of the office and he begins to have some pangs of conscience. The President is shown as being figuratively and literally a shark-eater, as he is eating a shark sandwich when conferring with Webster.
Senator Hanson is seen as both a liberal and a vegetarian. This is underscored when she has a courtesy luncheon date about her confirmation with the steak eating right-wing chairman Runyon and orders a spicy pasta dish, despite his insistence that Hanson better eat voraciously like he does if she wants to get power in Washington.
The story in itself is more soap opera than drama, but what gives it verve is the super performances from the three stars; Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman, and Joan Allen. They give depth to their roles and they are all seen in many different lights and shades. Jeff Bridges steals every scene he is in, offering a fascinating look at a president who could be likable though sinister and sneakily clever; and, he is also very politically human in a generous and gracious way. Bridges was thoroughly believable as an updated Bill Clinton-type, post-Lewinsky.
In a supporting role, as an adviser to the President, Kermit Newman (Sam Elliott), makes his presence felt in a very forceful performance as the political realist who has the President’s ear but knows when to stop giving advice and follow his leader.
This film is a pro-Clinton one, taking aim at those who dig up dirt and cast aspersions in a hypocritical way when it is evident that both sides are capable of using the same bag of dirty tricks to further their own cause. The film was fascinating when it didn’t have a message to deliver with some bogus pat speech and, instead, set up a logical argument showing that Senator Hanson should be confirmed for office despite allegations of her youthful sex scandal.
REVIEWED ON 11/2/2000 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED DENNIS SCHWARTZ