Review by Michael Jacobson
Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater
Director: Rod Lurie
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 127 Minutes
Release Date: March 6, 2001
In a key scene between House Committee Chairman Shelly
Runyon (Oldman) and Vice Presidential nominee Laine Hanson (Allen), he tells her
that he doesn’t expect greatness; that’s something that can only be achieved
when history calls for it. He can,
however, ask for the potential for greatness. Ironically, the movie The Contender disproves that
statement. It’s a film with a
potential for greatness…and that potential is not enough.
The Contender has all the necessary ingredients for
a smart, expedient political film. Early
on, it delves into the nature of the games in Washington:
how deals are made, how the parties play against each other as though the
political process was nothing more than a high stakes poker game, and how the
media often plays both sides up the middle for their own gain.
All the characters at first seem blemished:
the democratic President (Bridges), who, upon the death of his vice
president, forgoes nominating the most obvious and worthwhile choice, hoping
instead to leave as his legacy bringing the first woman into the White House.
Congressman Runyon, of course, has his own designs about said legacy
based on a loosely referred-to past between the two men:
he would approve the safe, better choice for the vacancy, but is
determined to thwart the President by bringing the roof down upon his actual
And, of course, Senator Laine Hanson herself, who becomes
the victim of the kind of inquest we’ve seen too much of in our country over
the last several years. As a figure
with the potential to rise to one of the land’s highest offices, she becomes
fair game for investigations into her past, both professionally and personally,
and it is the latter that comes back to haunt her. Her college sorority days absurdly enter the picture:
allegations of drunkenness and sexual promiscuity become the subject of
national interest. Photos from said college years are traded on the internet.
All the while, Senator Hanson is persuaded by the manipulative Runyon to
say something in her own defense. She
refuses: her personal life, particularly instances from so far back,
are not open for discussion.
The film works well up to a point…one could even argue it
handles itself with a certain sense of fairness in attacking the despicability
of the processes and proclaiming a certain amount of guilt on behalf of both
parties. After all, Hanson is
accused in a court of public opinion of sexual misconduct (as was our former
Democratic President) and irresponsible drunkenness (as was our current
But then, things start to go awry for The Contender.
It picks sides. Which is
not a problem in and of itself…certainly, a filmmaker has a right, maybe even
a responsibility, to make a personal statement in his work.
The problem is, that when the film declares its side, it makes everything
that came before fruitless. The
picture stops being a thoughtful, intelligent story about the destructiveness of
the political politics and becomes a trumpeter of liberal ideals…and it goes
from everybody being a little guilty to being a clear-cut case of the immaculate
Democrats versus the soiled Republicans.
To embrace this point of view, the film even sacrifices
credibility and story along the final stretch.
There is, for starters, the most ludicrous argument about abortion
between Hanson and Runyon in the middle of the public hearings.
Hanson sounds off on the issue of choice, while Runyon fires back about
it being mass murder. No politician, regardless of personal belief, would ever
engage in such a volatile discussion in front of a national audience in this day
and age…they are creatures of self-preservation, first and foremost.
This scene, in addition to siding with Hanson on the issue, also begins
polishing her halo for the film’s second half:
we know she has a potent weapon at her disposal against Runyon on this
topic. She chooses not to wield it.
The film takes an unwise break from its story narrative a
little later to allow Hanson to stand on her soapbox before the committee and
the country to carefully plead the liberal agenda one item at a time:
a woman’s right to choose, removing guns from every household, getting
involved in foreign affairs when the people of other countries suffer, ending
the death penalty, and so on. From
that point, the picture marches towards its inevitable finish, which is so
far-fetched and contrived it’s unforgivable.
The “potential for greatness”, as called for by Runyon, has rarely
ever been missed by so wide a margin. (Interestingly
enough, many critics faulted Lurie’s Deterrence as having a cop-out for
an ending. I wasn’t in agreement
with them on that, but I can understand why a little more after seeing The
Other attempts by the film to choose sides are more subtle,
but still clear. Assuming Hanson is
the sacrificial lamb caught in the middle of the process, the key Democratic and
Republican figures are therefore the President and Runyon, respectively.
Jeff Bridges is a handsome man, and he is always seen in the film as
smartly dressed, well groomed and neat. Gary
Oldman doesn’t quite have those looks to begin with, but to make the point
even more obvious, his hair is always unkempt in the film (and he’s often
photographed from behind to accentuate a prolific bald spot).
His clothes are wrinkled, and look too big for him…or should I say, his
wardrobe makes him look smaller. Rest
assured, these were not accidental nor coincidental choices.
Even Runyon’s token scene of sympathy, when he and his
wife are alone discussing his political past and future, attempts to earn points
for the Congressman by calling attention to an instance where he fought for a
hate crime bill…another staple of liberalism.
Clearly, we are to assume that the only good in this man came from when
he momentarily stopped being acting like a Republican.
I am not a particularly political person, especially when
it comes to my films. I find The
Battleship Potemkin a brilliant film, though it wears its Communist emblems
proudly. I also love and respect Triumph
of the Will as an important and equally brilliant film, even though it
glorifies Nazism. Had The
Contender been forthright about its agenda from the start, who knows if it
could have worked better and more coherently as a film?
But it never should have pulled its liberal ideals
out of its shirt sleeve as a final trump card…it only succeeded in making the
thoughtful dialogue, the intrigue, and the intelligence of the picture up to
that point entirely wasted and meaningless.
This is a well cast picture from top to bottom…much has
been made about Joan Allen’s work in the title role, and rightly so.
She has been on quite a roll since her Oscar nomination for Nixon, stringing
together an impressive body of work. Her
earnestness and dedication to the character of Hanson is one of the film’s
early strong points, and despite having to evolve from a realistic person to a
mere mouthpiece for Lurie, remains one to the end.
Jeff Bridges offers a nice turn as the President, who starts out a bit
tainted but eventually becomes another icon of truth and honor in the face of
repression. Gary Oldman, a
veritable chameleon, delivers another memorable performance as Runyon; even
though the character is extremely one-sided, he manages to bring a sense of
humanity to him.
Writer/director Rod Lurie is capable of making a smart
political film. He proved so with Deterrence,
and shows much of the same aptitude in this movie, up to a certain point.
His willingness to flaunt his ideals in his work is fine in and of
itself—under different circumstances, probably even praiseworthy.
I only wish he’d thought harder about what he was giving up with The
Contender in order to have a chance to proclaim those ideals.
“Principles aren’t worth anything unless you stand by
them when its inconvenient,” Senator Hanson says in the film.
Lurie calls this the moral of the story, and maybe he tried to take it a
step further and prove it by sacrificing his film on the altar of his ideals.
The Contender could have been one, and the pride it may have for
coming close to greatness will surely give way one day to the regret of not
Though this film was picked up by Dreamworks for
distribution, it was not made by them…hence, the video quality is not up to
normal studio standards. It’s
still perfectly good…most of the image concerns come from Lurie’s own
preferences plus his budget limitations. He
likes to shoot with high contrast film and filters, leading to a little extra
grain in the texture of most scenes. Lighter
scenes come across with good detail and sharpness, with colors appearing just a
little more drab than normal. Darker
images and scenes lose some definition, but not enough to be distracting.
The 5.1 soundtrack is fairly good for a dialogue-oriented
film. The committee hearings come
across particularly well: as the
participants speak into their microphones, there’s a good sense of reverb
brought out by the rear stage, as well as good dynamic range:
certain words seem to get emphasis on the audio, making for a real sense
of everyone hanging on them as futures lie in the balance.
The dialogue is very clean and clear throughout, with no noticeable noise
The highlight is a full length commentary by Rod Lurie and
Joan Allen together…a very enjoyable listen, even when the two indulge in
praise-a-thons for each other and their fellow actors.
For those who remember the Premiere magazine story about the
supposed conflicts between Gary Oldman, Dreamworks and Lurie, he addresses that
near the end, and offers his opinions that the scenario was simply blown out of
proportion. There is also a
featurette not only on this film, but the history of the political thriller as a
genre, with homage to films like All the President’s Men, The Manchurian
Candidate, The Parallax View and others.
There are also some deleted scenes, a trailer, talent files and