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THE CONTENDER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater
Director:  Rod Lurie
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Dreamworks
Features:  See Review
Length:  127 Minutes
Release Date:  March 6, 2001

Film **1/2

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 appointee.

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 Republican one).

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 Contender.)

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 achieving it.

Video ***

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. 

Audio ***

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 or interference.

Features ****

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 production notes.

Summary:

Rod Lurie is a talented writer and director.  He has shown a propensity for intelligent scripts, purposeful direction, and a masterful handling of actors, both in his first movie Deterrence and, to a certain degree, with The Contender.  This is a film that fails when Senator Hanson stops being a real character and becomes a mere mouthpiece for Lurie’s ideals.  He’s free to make his movies say anything he wants them to, of course…even if it means that precious potential for greatness withers away in the process.