The Contender
Joan Allen in The Contender

USA/France, 2000. Rated R. 126 minutes.

Cast: Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges, Sam Elliott, Christian Slater, William L. Petersen, Saul Rubinek, Mike Binder, Robin Thomas, Philip Baker Hall, Mariel Hemingway, Kathryn Morris, Kristen Shaw
Writer: Rod Lurie
Music: Larry Groupé
Cinematographer: Denis Maloney
Producers: Willi Bär, Marc Frydman, James Spies, Douglas Urbanski
Director: Rod Lurie


Grade: B Review and analysis by Carlo Cavagna

Note: Four paragraphs of this review analyze the ending and contain major spoilers. They are clearly marked. If you have not yet seen this movie and intend to do so, we strongly recommend you skip those paragraphs and read them after you've seen the movie.

I n political thrillers, Hollywood uses the same shorthand over and over. The sleazy, two-faced politician is typically portrayed with his pants down, having sex with some pretty young thing when he's supposed to be a hardworking family man tending to the nation's business. That's how Senator Lane Hanson is introduced in The Contender, having sex in the office when The Call comes from the President. The difference is that Lane Hanson is a woman. By introducing her with her skirt up, writer/director Rod Lurie surely intends her to be a negative figure. Not so. Lurie confounds our expectations: Hanson is the most noble figure in the movie–implausibly noble by the end, in fact. The Contender eventually reaches too far, partially undermining its own effectiveness, but it is still a solidly entertaining, even thought-provoking film.

The idea is that the elected Democratic vice-president has died, and the president (Jeff Bridges), who is nearing the end of his second term, is worried about his "legacy" and place in history. Thus he passes over the most obvious candidate, Senator Hathaway (William L. Petersen), who is something of a national hero, and decides to appoint a woman to the vice presidency.

Right off the bat, Lurie's premise challenges political correctness, taking on the issue of "quotas" and affirmative action. Breaking the gender barrier at the top levels of government is obviously desirable, but the president seems to be choosing Hanson because she is the best woman for the job, not because she is the best person for the job. Republican Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a friend of Hathaway, is appalled. He announces to his associates that he will not go easy on Hanson during the confirmation hearings. In fact, he is determined to bring her down, and he is joined in the effort by ambitious young Democratic Congressman Reginald Webster (Christian Slater). Runyon wields a potent weapon, a story that Hanson once engaged in public group sex while in college, with photographs of the alleged incident. Will Hanson fend off the attack, or will she meekly wash out of the confirmation process?

Lurie builds the suspense without calling on political-thriller cliches. There are no black helicopters, no chase scenes, no government agents in unmarked cars following people around, and no sneaking into private offices to copy computer files frantically before being discovered. In fact, there's no action whatsoever. Like in his previous film Deterrence (a tiny indie no one saw), Lurie relies exclusively on conversations to build his story. Lurie has an ear for conversational exchanges, and he's clearly watched the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings a few times. Because the writing is so sharp, Lurie has no need to resort to slick editing. The drama is in the words, and Lurie relies on the audience to pay attention.Gary Oldman in The Contender

The Contender has a point to make: women in public office are held to unreasonable standards of behavior and have to answer questions that men are never asked. At first Runyon's reason for opposing Hanson appears to be just what he says it is: an honest belief that there are better people for the job. It soon becomes obvious that Runyon's motives are shaped by a deep, abiding misogyny. Throughout the hearings, he uses Hanson's sexuality and womanhood against her, transparently trying to embarrass her while pretending to be friendly. It's an effective strategy. In order to be taken seriously in Washington, women are required to be practically antiseptic, asexual creatures. Lane Hanson is not. This makes things extremely difficult for her. Making matters worse, Hanson absolutely refuses to respond to any accusations regarding her personal life. Even to deny the charges, she believes, is a tacit acknowledgment that it's all right to make the accusations in the first place. Her nomination seems doomed.

That's when serious plot difficulties begin to appear. [SPOILERS begin here:] Because of the larger point he wants to make, Lurie won't allow his heroine to defend herself. To get to a happy ending, he must find some other way for Hanson to prevail. The contrivances he uses clash with the realism of the rest of the film. Eventually it comes out that Hathaway faked his heroic act and even caused the death of the person he was supposedly trying to save. How convenient! And how unlikely! Only a colossal moron would attempt a stunt like the one Hathaway attempts, but no one advances as far as Hathaway has by being a colossal moron. (Well, ok, Dan Quayle did.)

Hathaway's fiasco removes the most likely alternative to Hanson and embarrasses Runyon, but Hanson doesn't win by default. The accusations against her are still out there, and so she finally withdraws her name from consideration. To carry the day for righteousness, Lurie caps the film with Big Speech by the President, complete with the sound of swelling horns in the background. In his speech, the President takes Congress to task for its unfairness, refuses to accept Hanson's attempt to abandon the field, and demands her immediate confirmation via a public roll call vote. The tone of the scene is so different from the rest of the film that one has to wonder if it was added later, after the film had been test screened a few times. The Contender might have been more provocative had it simply ended with the previous scene, in which Hanson accepts her failure. In Deterrence, Lurie had the luxury of ending the film ambiguously, with a seemingly sympathetic protagonist having precipitously committed to a probably unjustifiable course of action. But big studio budgets require clear and happy endings.

In addition to the implausibilities, a problem with The Contender's logic emerges at the end. Lurie tries to make Hanson so noble a figure that he finally reveals that the person in the photographs is not her, and that the proof is the lack of a birthmark on the woman's thigh. No one in the film other than the President ever learns this. Perhaps it is noble to refuse to respond to inappropriate allegations, but it's not noble to refuse to point out a basic fact. It's stupid. Hanson has to be bailed out by the President when she could have bailed herself out. Noting that the woman in the photos is someone else in no way would have undermined Hanson's basic position that she is the victim of a double standard. We, the audience in the real world, are meant to be overawed by Hanson's noble stance, but the fictitious general public in The Contender has no knowledge of her sacrifice. In the absence of other data, the public would almost certainly assume that Hanson's refusal to deny the charges means they are true. Lurie has made his point to moviegoing audiences, but has Hanson won the battle in the hearts and minds of the public in the movie? Has she really convinced them that Runyon's accusations are out of line regardless of whether they are true or false? Lurie tries to address this possible deficiency with the president's speech, but it doesn't seem like enough.

Come to think of it, why couldn't Lurie have allowed the accusations against Hanson to be true, or at least left them unanswered? After all, Lurie is trying to convince us that the sex lives of our political leaders should be irrelevant. If this is his belief, why doesn't he trust that audiences would see Hanson as noble if it were to turn out that she really did have public group sex? [End SPOILERS]
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Fortunately, the acting is so brilliant that it carries the film past most of its flaws. Some Academy Award™ nominations are in order here. Bridges, the erstwhile Dude of The Big Lebowski, is far more presidential than one might expect and gives a fine performance, even if he does sometimes look and sound like he has marbles in his mouth. The president's attempts to confound the White House chef by ordering bizarre foods provide some light comic relief. Bridges shifts between these comic moments and more serious scenes smoothly, and almost makes his Big Speech believable–almost. Sam Elliot is an even greater pleasure as the president's straight-shooting Chief of Staff. Just in case anyone had forgotten after a series of hammy I'm-just-doing-this-for-the-money bad-guy roles in movies like The Fifth Element and Lost in Space, Gary Oldman again shows that he can merge completely with his character. In his right-wing persona with extremely bad hair, he's almost unrecognizable.

Any of these characters could easily have become political caricatures like Richard Dreyfuss' villainous Bob Rumson in The American President or John Travolta's over-the-top Jack Stanton in Primary Colors, but the actors resist stepping over the line into parody. Philip Baker Hall and Mariel Hemingway also appear in strong cameo roles. Christian Slater is the only bad casting decision–neither the actor nor the character he plays belong in the movie. Webster is too obviously a story device, and there's absolutely nothing about Slater that says, "I'm a legislator." Slater doesn't even look like someone who would be named Reginald Webster.

The Contender boasts many outstanding performances, but it is Joan Allen who shines brightest. Her role is not as flashy as some of the others, but she carries the film, projecting just the right amount of strength or vulnerability at precisely the right moments. This is her movie. It's odd that Gary Oldman gets top billing. Isn't The Contender supposed to be about gender discrimination? They should have put Allen's name first where it belongs, in great big blinking neon letters ten feet high.

Review © October 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2000 DreamWorks LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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