The Contender

Bowl (Large)

Khokhloma painting on wood is a traditional type

of Russian decorative work.

In a year when studios seem compelled to produce films that appeal to audiences with the brains of a bivalve and the attention span of a fruit fly, The Contender is a welcome contrast. It’s a taut and gripping tale of political intrigue featuring one of the smartest scripts of the year and tour-de-force acting in several key roles. This is former film critic Rod Lurie’s second feature effort as writer/director. His first (Deterrence) was uneven at best, comprised of equal parts bad acting and implausible plot devices. The Contender ratchets things up several notches and serves notice that Lurie can craft a masterful political thriller.

The sitting Vice President has died, and second-term President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) taps Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) to be the first woman to hold the office, as his legacy. It’s a surprise choice, as most pundits had figured Governor Jack Hathaway (William Peterson) had the inside track. Hanson is a compromise choice, saddled with her own set of political baggage. Her recent defection to the Democratic Party has made a number of enemies on the Republican side of the aisle, a point not lost on Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldham), the chairman of the confirmation committee – he’s a Hathaway backer.

Allegations of Hanson’s past sexual impropriety (involvement in group sex at a college sorority initiation) surface, giving Runyon the ammunition he needs to try to torpedo her appointment. Jackson’s Chief of Staff (Sam Elliott) sees this as an opportunity to dump Hanson and get Hathaway back in the loop. The Contender shows a realistic view of how the political process really works under the covers. But besides the standard bipartisan political ploys, the film wrestles with other issues: are the private lives of our elected officials really anyone’s business, and what additional pressures are being brought to bear here strictly because Hanson is a woman?

Lurie and director of photography Denis Maloney bring the audience deep into their characters’ lives, they use wobbly hand-held shots and extreme close-ups to create a pseudo-documentary look and a near total lack of background music adds to the realism. Lurie showcases his actors in several risky scenes – one where subtext and body language are used to communicate in stark contrast to the words being spoken, and another where a character is doing a live TV remote without benefit of a monitor; only their side of the interview is heard.

These high-wire acts work due to the uniform excellence of the cast. The entire film rests on the ability of Joan Allen to be both a convincing political operative and a person living by the strength of her convictions. She carries it off with strength, wisdom and grace. As Runyon, Gary Oldham is virtually indistinguishable beneath a bizarre receding hairline and horn-rimmed glasses – he looks like the illegitimate offspring of Paul Wellstone and Everett Dirksen – but he completely personifies the political axiom of the ends justifying the means. Jeff Bridges’ President Evans has a down-home exterior masking a case-hardened heart. Even the secondary characters are fully drawn – Sam Elliott is alternately crusty and unctuous, and Kristen Shaw has a small but captivating role in a subplot involving an FBI investigation.

If The Contender has a weakness, it’s that Lurie resorts to a music-swelling, sea-to-shining-sea speech by Bridges to hammer home his conclusion – it’s totally out of character with the sparse look and gritty simplicity of the rest of the film. And for a story line whose philosophy is so firmly in the "private lives are nobody’s business" camp, there are a few too many images of the sexual incident in question and too much revealed of what actually happened – it tries to both take the high road and titillate. But it’s an admirably dense film – there isn’t an ounce of fat, no filler scenes or throwaway characters. With impressive performances and an intelligent plot, The Contender is a rewarding study of a world where ideologies constantly joust with personal beliefs, and the latter usually lose.

– Bob Aulert