The Contender
Review By: Gringo

Rod Lurie wrote and directed Deterrence, the story of a Vice President who assumes the Presidency on the death of the incumbent Commander-in-Chief. That movie dealt with the new leader debating amongst his staff whether to launch a nuclear assault on Iraq. Essentially, it played like Twelve Angry Men with bombs, set as it was entirely in a Colorado diner. The reason I mention this movie is that - whilst it was notable for having Mikey Walsh from The Goonies (also known as Sean Astin) in the cast - it was only average entertainment, and quite often unbelievable in a far-fetched manner at best. Yet it was a moderate success and Lurie's position as 'promising newcomer' was secured. Sticking with American politics, Lurie took the helm again for his follow-up The Contender. After seeing it, I realised that Mr. Writer/Director must have been on one of those $1000-a-day filmmaking courses, because it is quite simply excellent. Hey, that's a lot of italicised movie names in one paragraph.

The Contender isn't based on someone's quest to be the champion on Supermarket Sweep, much as that remains a glorious ambition of mine. No, it's the story of President Jackson Evans (played by The Dude himself, Jeff Bridges - more on that later) trying to get Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) confirmed as his new Vice President after his original number two - so to speak - dies. Only problem is, Hanson's a lady and some people claim she's unsuitable for the job due to an alleged sex orgy (I really have to stop using parenthesis quite as often as I am doing). Thus begins an hour and a bit of drama based on the whole personal-private life distinction and questioning how much of a right the public has to know about the sex life of a politician; be the rumours true or false. As with almost any movie involving politics, The Contender takes sides. Hanson and Evans are both Democrats, whereas those seeking to make sure Hanson's never made Vice President are predominantly Republicans, save for one nefarious Democrat Governor.

If left wing ain't your thing, don't let the liberal basis of this movie put you off. See it for the well-structured drama it is and try to ignore the fact that it doesn't go along with your political conscience. Although a few scenes, such as a debate on abortion, threaten to let the director's beliefs run away with themselves and irreversibly spoil the story, there's plenty in this movie's favour. Most characters are well rounded and it's not a black-and-white picture of good versus bad, Democrats versus Republicans. The characters are more motivated by a personal sense of right and wrong rather than any partisan politics, and that's a nice touch. The overall feel of the movie is one of high quality; everything - from the Presidential bowling lane to the room where the confirmation hearings are held - is shot in glossy tones, giving everything a regal look. Dialogue is sharp, well written and with many subtle comic touches. For example, when the President asks Hanson's young son why his mother is so calm about her potential new role in America's legislature, he remarks to the President "Because nobody wants to shoot the Vice President".

As for acting, not a single player in the movie has a redundant part. For once, every single character truly drives the narrative forward. But what really makes the difference with The Contender is the cast portraying those characters. Joan Allen is as always perfect in her role. Gary Oldman plays her nemesis, Republican Shelly Runyon; the Chairman of Laine Hanson's confirmation hearing. If you've ever seen Nixon then you know how strong Allen can make her characters, and Hanson (the woman, not the band of high pitched, low IQ suffering human punchbags) is no exception. Instead of going along with the flow and revealing everything about her personal life, she sticks to her principles. If there's a problem, it's that she's a more decent politician than many out there. Oldman - who is quite simply one of the best actors, ever - is the perfect foil as Runyon. This Republican doesn't want Hanson as Vice President not because of petty partisan politics, but because of his principles - he just doesn't think she's right for the role. The fact that real thought has gone into the central conflicts in the movie makes it far more entertaining and engrossing than some of the politicized pap out there.

Jeff Bridges is great as President Jackson Evans. Through him, we get a glimpse of how someone like Clinton might have acted in his second term; knowing how the White House works, knowing he can manipulate his guests and intimidate his kitchen staff, constantly ordering exotic foods on a whim. As far as the manipulation goes, to win Christian Slater's character over, Evans meets him in a room filled with the pictures of successful Democratic presidents and gives him a mini-speech about self-righteousness and all that jazz (or rock or rhythm and blues - your choice). Although there's a fairly obvious shot where Slater's character pulls JFK's folded-arms pose whilst looking at his portrait, the scene's pretty well done - much like the entire movie.

When watching The Contender it feels like you're seeing some sort of mini Big Lebowski reunion. You have the Dude...El Duderino (I'm not into that whole brevity thing) playing the President, and The Stranger (Sam Elliot) as the President's top advisor, Kermit Newman. Yes, Kermit's a daft name, but then again so is Gringo and I call myself that for some reason (insanity). Bridges even gets to bowl; something The Dude didn't do for the entire duration of the Coen Brother's best movie so far. Elliot's as good as he always is - for those of you who don't think Westerns qualify as good movies, just watch some with him in - and here he portrays a calculating yet cool man that is at odds with Jerry Tolliver (Saul Rubinek); the President's gawky, bumbling Press Secretary. As with real-life Presidential Press Secretaries (a la George Stephanopolous - even though he did write a great book about the Clinton era), Tolliver proves to be something of a turncoat - but it's not spoiling a great deal to tell you that. The diverse politics of all the characters is a much more realistic view than simply staging Democrats versus Republicans.

All right, that's more than enough about the cast. I was writing a review? Maybe! The direction of The Contender is first rate; with a real eye for the beauty of Washington D.C. and the various government institutions. Everything is presented with a polished look to it, and there are plenty of impressive shots of the nation's capital. There's even a continuous shot into the Capitol building to rival the length and style of Scorcese's long shot of Henry Hill's entrance to the nightclub in Goodfellas. Clever improvisation, keen character observation and some great set-pieces (such as the final denouement at the White House and a surprisingly well-placed argument on the issue of abortion) definitely place The Contender on my top ten list of political movies. Mind you, I don't really have a top ten list of political movies. But if I did, The Contender would be at about number three, about level with The Candidate but above Wag The Dog.

The only real problem I have with the movie is with the soundtrack. On the director's commentary for Deterrence, Lurie admitted that he'd over-used the music in some places and that it spoilt some scenes. Whilst he doesn't do it to the same extent with The Contender, it's still evident. Never more so than the final scene, which could have been a fitting pro-democracy speech given by a boisterous President Evans. However, it's spoilt and its dramatic impact - we learn of Hanson's fate via this speech - is lessened by the soundtrack. Bombastic patriotic music swells to the point where you feel the entire cast and crew might as well all be holding miniature United States flags and saluting away like nobody's business. It's not enough to ruin the movie's almost consistent high quality, but it's certainly a problem.

Up until the very end, the movie manages to present a liberal point of view without demonizing its opponents, for which I really respect it. In the closing seconds, it opens its folded arms and embraces its own viewpoint to the point of bear hugging, which I personally don't mind too much - but more politically sensitive viewers might. Then again, if it's a politically charged movie you're after, you can't go too wrong picking The Contender. And who can argue with the final principles the movie sets out to reinforce; which are honesty, privacy and equal opportunity? Choose this movie and you won't regret it. Unless you pick up a copy of Ninja Academy by mistake. Well, that was my excuse in Blockbuster's when I rented it for the 26,205th time.

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