2000, R, 125 min. Directed by Rod Lurie. Starring Gary Oldman, Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, William Petersen, Philip Baker Hall, Saul Rubinek, Sam Elliott.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 13, 2000
Timely as can be, The Contender arrives on the scene this presidential-election season as a sober reminder of the evils inherent in attempting to pervert the democratic process. As cautionary tales go, this one is pretty provocative and thought-provoking, a potpourri of issue-oriented drama enlivened by superlative performances and smart dialogue. Intelligent as it is, however, the film's language is too often put in the service of chin-thrusting speechifying which also serves the story's need for combative confrontation. This is of little benefit to the actors, each of whom, despite having wonderful moments throughout the telling of this story, has done better work elsewhere. Oldman, who also executive-produced The Contender, is virtually unrecognizable underneath his makeup as a sourpuss congressman who wields his power in the service of a grudge. He clearly puts his creative best into this performance, but for all the subtlety of the role, the character might just as well have worn a black hat and conveyed the same degree of evil intent. Several other scenes play out rather obviously: Anyone who's seen Blow Out or heard of Chappaquidick can guess what's about to occur. The film's deeply resonant story centers on the appointment by the U.S. president (Bridges) of prominent female Senator Laine Hanson (Allen) to fill the No. 2 spot after the sitting vice president dies in office. This precedent-setting appointment of a woman appears scuttled by the emergence of a particularly salacious sex scandal that is said to have occurred many years before, during the senator's college years. Refusing to dignify the charges with a yea or nay, Senator Hanson takes the high road and argues that the issue has no bearing on her suitability for office and that her sex life has no place in the public dialogue. Written and directed by former film critic and writer Rod Lurie, The Contender clearly draws on recent events for much of its inspiration, and in that regard the film is an interesting fictionalization of current affairs. Yet also of interest are the places the movie decides not to go: investigating the double sexual standards for men and women or what would have occurred if Hanson “confessed” to the alleged sexual practices. Instead, The Contender digresses into a side inquiry about Hanson's betrayal of her former best friend, who was also her husband's former wife (Mariel Hemingway in a throwaway cameo), and a heated congressional argument about the morality of abortion. Whether The Contender turns out to be a timely hit like The China Syndrome or a topical bust like the recent Primary Colors remains to be seen. But as a warm-up for the oncoming fall movie season, The Contender's thoughtfulness and beyond-pure-escapism ambitions make it a force to be reckoned with.