The Contender

Political thrillers have all but disappeared from today's movie marketplace. Does anyone remember the last one they saw? Deterrence was good, but never widely released. The Contender is a logical follow-up, both in tone and in content. Some trashy movies can proclaim they are "ripped from the headlines," and if the plot for The Contender was not already familiar to American audiences, it would be ridiculous (especially in light of some of the stories during the Clinton administration). The movie follows the arduous confirmation process of Democratic Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen, The Ice Storm, Pleasantville) to the Vice Presidency. The fact that The Contender takes sides and names names is refreshing. Watching politicians in movies from fictitious parties gets old fast. Pundits should also enjoy this movie since it names actual politicians like Clinton and Boxer, but watch out, the names pass pretty quickly.

President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges, Arlington Road, Simpatico) is looking for a new Vice President. Many advisors want him to pick popular Wyoming Governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen, CSI, The Rat Pack), but he opts for Hanson. Hanson brings much baggage with her; she recently was a member of the Republican Party. Evans wants her because he believes she is qualified and wants a female Vice President as part of his legacy. Republican Senator Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman, Lost in Space, Murder in the First) heads the Committee appointed to run the confirmation process. He is adamantly opposed to Hanson's confirmation, and quickly discovers extremely compromising pictures of Hanson in an orgy from her college days. Runyon leaks the information to the press causing a feeding frenzy, but Hanson refuses to even comment on the issue. To her, it is beneath her dignity to comment on the issue.

What follows is a test of wills between Runyon and Hanson. Oldman gravitates towards evil characters, and Runyon is another good performance for him. This time, his malice is not as evident. He hatred of Hanson hides behind his political beliefs. It becomes less of a fair process to determine if Hanson is fit for the Vice Presidency and more of a personal smear campaign leveled against her. He even looks the part of somebody evil, with his thin stringy hair on the top of his head and his upper lip sweat that accumulates after long orations. He laces his words with bile and his long speeches are thinly veiled attempts to bring rumor and innuendo into the confirmation process. Allen fares relatively well against Oldman, mainly because of writer/director Rod Lurie's script. She stands firm in her beliefs but still loses out by refusing to fight back. However, Allen's performance is still noteworthy. The only other actor who stands out is Christian Slater (Very Bad Things, Hard Rain), who plays a freshman Democratic Representative. He is young and has ideals, and they are all very much against Hanson. He weasels his way onto the committee and throughout the movie deals with his belief in doing what is right versus his actions to ruin Hanson.

Some people (including Oldman) charged that Lurie edited The Contender so it was biased towards Democrats. To a certain extent, this is true, but not for those reasons. Runyon is the bad guy, Hanson is the hero. Of course the script is going to sympathize with Hanson and demonize some of Runyon's beliefs. Most scenes dealing with the confirmation have either Runyon vilifying Hanson's beliefs by proclaiming his own, or Hanson vigorously defending what she believes in. This does not make much for equal time, and takes away some of the inherent power in the story. At least the characters all stand for something and are willing to explain why the support what they do. There is also a noticeable lack of music in The Contender. It is minimal until the end, when it becomes overbearing, along with the ending.

Haro Rates It: Not Bad.
2 hours, 12 minutes, Rated R for strong sexual content and language.

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