The Contender

Rated: R
Runtime: 2 Hours and 7 Minutes

Reviewer: Jones
Grade: A+

If there is one thing in the world of cinema that commands respect, it is a film that tackles it’s subject without compromise. “The Contender” is just such a film. It tackles it’s subjects unabashedly and with a flair that is quite unique in design. Where lesser films would skirt the issues, “The Contender” takes the bull by the horns and sheds light upon the ugliness that pervades the American political system. It is for this reason that, with time, “The Contender” will take it’s place in the rarified company of such legendary political thrillers as “J.F.K.” and “All The President’s Men”.

President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) has a difficult situation on his hands. His Vice-President has recently passed away and he is faced with the dilemma of choosing a successor. After the popular choice, Governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), graciously withdraws his name from consideration when the President informs him that he will not be the one selected, the President chooses to nominate Senator Laine Hanson (brilliantly portrayed by Joan Allen). This choice meets with opposition in the form of Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman). Being an old friend of Gov. Hathaway and a Republican tried and true, Shelly is of the opinion that the Democratic President has erred in his selection of Sen. Hanson and makes it his personal mission to derail her bid for confirmation in every way that he possibly can. He sends his people out to delve into her past and they return with a bombshell. While in college she allegedly took part in a sex show in order to be initiated into a sorority. Photographic evidence and eyewitnesses have been obtained to confirm her past improprieties. The shit isn’t about to hit the fan, it HAS hit the fan and how Senator Hanson chooses to deal with the allegations is the very foundation upon which this film is built.

“The Contender” is a political film unlike any other in that it doesn’t deal with politics so much as principles. The aforementioned principles belong to Senator Laine Hanson and this film is all about those principles and how they can make or break her future. She is put on the spot during the confirmation process on a number of occasions. Congressman Runyon gives her the opportunity to respond to the allegations on these occasions, but rather than lash out at her detractors, she chooses to not speak about that, because it is a personal matter and, as such, is nobody’s business. She views the question itself to be inappropriate, because it is a double standard that she shouldn’t have to answer to. Over time even those on her side become frustrated with her defiance and try to make her fight back, but she won’t. She would rather withdraw her name from consideration rather than be subject to the double standards that perpetuate our society. She is a strong woman and will not be bullied into doing anything against her will.

Joan Allen is this woman. She is Senator Laine Hanson. This is the performance of a lifetime. Joan is always exceptional. In films like “Pleasantville”, “Manhunter” and “Tucker” she has delivered strong performances that remain in the viewer’s mind long after others fade away. Her work here makes everything else she has ever done look second rate in comparison. There is never a moment that she does not convey the impression that she is under the microscope fighting for what she believes to be right every step of the way. Everything is done to break this woman, but she would rather throw in the towel than play the game that is confirmation hearing roulette.

There are moments where it appears she will break, or throw in the towel, but the President won’t let her. They are in this together and who better to be at your side in a time of crisis than the Dude, er I mean Jeff “Lebowski” Bridges as President Jackson Evans. Fans of “The Big Lebowski” will be glad to see Bridges in the role of Commander-in-Chief. It’s great, because it’s almost as if the dude did become President, because there is actually a scene where he’s bowling. Tell me that doesn’t rule! Aside from that, Bridges is his usual brilliant self. I can think of no one I would rather have as President, with the possible exception of George Carlin. Bridges is every bit the leader of the free world. He takes his position seriously when he needs to, but he always manages to break the ice at the most opportune times. He does this by attempting to catch his cooks off guard by asking for a meal that they can’t deliver. He never seems to have any success at catching them off guard, but it is something of a game to him and it is a game that he plans on winning one day. This is a nice little comic undercurrent that is used with precision and restraint.

The rest of the cast deliver with top-shelf performances as well. Gary Oldman is operating at his usual level of mastery in the role of Congressman Shelly Runyon. He comes off as the bad guy, but he really isn’t all that bad. He’s just a man of principle, very much the same as Senator Hanson is a woman of principle. It just so happens that their principles are in direct conflict with one another practically every step of the way. William Petersen (“Manhunter”) delivers a fine performance as Governor Hathaway. His is a story that has more to it than meets the eye. It is an integral part of the film as a whole and plays largely in the ultimate resolution of the film’s story. Christian Slater is surprisingly restrained as a young representative from Delaware with lofty aspirations in his career. Phillip Baker Hall also shows up for a cameo appearance as Senator Hanson’s father. He is brilliant as always.

These great performances are tied together by Director/Writer Rod Lurie’s mesmerizing screenplay. It is written in the same vein as the great political thrillers of the past. Heavy on the dialogue and suspense and light on predictability. A mere fifteen minutes from the conclusion you still have no idea how it is going to end. Harkening back to films like “Network” it has some great speeches and rapid fire dialogue to carry the story. Bridges is handed a speech that any President would be proud to deliver and makes it larger than life. Patriotism drips from every syllable. When I heard it, it reminded me of what it felt like to be proud of being an American. None of the performances are easy, because of the sort of film that this is. If lines aren’t delivered to perfection then everything falls apart. The film relies on it’s performers to deliver the story moreso than most films, because of the depth of the screenplay and the lack of any sort of special effects that most other films rely on.

“The Contender” is a throwback to the times of yore when dialogue and great acting were responsible for carrying a film. This is a rare film nowadays. It stays true to it’s premise. It will not compromise. It will not back down. It will not be denied. “The Contender” will not allow these things to happen for one very important reason.

It wants you to take it seriously.