The Contender

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The ViewAuckland Review

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Review byMatthew Turner25/04/2001

Three stars out of five
Running time: 126 mins

Watchable political drama that’s let down by a nosedive into sentimental nonsense towards the end.

When Democratic President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) loses his Vice-President mid-term, he decides to ignore popular choice Jack Hathaway (William Petersen) and instead nominates Ohio senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), intending for his second term of office to end on a flourish. However, Republican congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman, who also executive-produced) is opposed to the nomination and unearths a sex scandal from her past that threatens to derail her appointment.

For the most part, The Contender is an enjoyable film that raises some interesting questions and examines the various political wranglings that go on behind the scenes of important political decisions. It’s well served on this score by an intelligent script by director Rod Lurie, and one that isn’t afraid to throw a few jokes around either.

Sadly, however, the film takes a massive nosedive into sermonizing and sentimentality by the end, incorporating not just one, but two ‘crowd-pleasing’ speech scenes, both of them scored to within an inch of their lives with the sort of wince-inducing "uplifting" music that’s so over-the-top as to be embarrassing.

Up until that point, however, the film treads an interesting line. Hanson refuses to confirm or deny the accusations against her (involving her part in an alleged fraternity ‘gang-bang’ in her college days), declaring that she won’t dignify them with an answer because it has nothing to do with her suitability for the job and therefore it’s "not okay" to ask the questions in the first place. (Interestingly, she still passes judgement on Clinton, which seems to suggest a certain double-standard, but that’s a minor quibble). Unfortunately, however, the film wants it both ways, and when the film ends, you can’t help but feel it would have been a much stronger piece if they had stuck to their original guns.

Ultimately, what rescues The Contender from two-star ignominy is the trio of superb performances by its three stars. Joan Allen gives a deservedly Oscar-nominated performance, conveying Hanson’s quiet integrity and demonstrating exactly why she’s the right woman for the job, but also revealing a definite sexuality under the surface - when we first meet her she’s having sex with her husband on a desk!

Bridges (also Oscar-nominated) is clearly enjoying himself, playing the President with more than a hint of The Dude (the bowling hippy stoner he played in The Big Lebowski), conducting meetings in the White House bowling alley (where he curses his "left-leaning tendencies") and constantly using the White House catering service to order whatever he wants. Oldman, too, gives yet another of his masterful, chameleonic performances, managing to humanize Runyon even while delivering speeches such as that in which he accuses Hanson (who is pro-choice) of supporting a "holocaust of the unborn"!

There’s also excellent support from William Petersen, Sam Elliot (who was also in Lebowski and was apparently recommended by Bridges) and Christian Slater as an ambitious senator. (The fact that Slater’s mother Mary Jo Slater was also the casting director is surely mere coincidence).

In general, then, this is a watchable political drama that lets itself down badly towards the end but keeps things ticking along thanks to its strong performances. If it’s pure political action you want, then check out Thirteen Days instead, but if you don’t mind a large helping of cheese and syrup with your political dramas, then The Contender is for you.

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The Contender
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Content updated: 15/11/2019 08:22

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