Senator Laine Hanson is a contender for U.S. Vice President, but information and disinformation about her past surfaces that threatens to derail her confirmation.Senator Laine Hanson is a contender for U.S. Vice President, but information and disinformation about her past surfaces that threatens to derail her confirmation.Senator Laine Hanson is a contender for U.S. Vice President, but information and disinformation about her past surfaces that threatens to derail her confirmation.
Like most contemporary films that deal with political issues, `The Contender' demonstrates an obvious left leaning bias. As usual, it is the Democrats who are portrayed as the righteous speakers of truth and the Republicans who are shown as the scheming, unctuous and conniving dispensers of hatred and rumormongering. Jeff Bridges stars as President Jackson Evans, a well-meaning, seemingly moral man who, upon the sudden death of his vice president, nominates a woman, Senator Laine Hanson, to be his replacement. Gary Oldman plays the Republican chairman who will stop at nothing in his efforts to torpedo the nomination, even if that means exposing her rather torrid sexual past for all the world to see (although, in many ways, his obsession with ruining the chances of a candidate he feels to be less qualified in favor of one who is more beloved as a national figure makes little practical sense because wouldn't he, as a member of the rival party, be MORE inclined to support someone he thought would bring trouble to the present administration?)
If you can see past the partisan propaganda, you will find `The Contender' to be one of the most riveting films of the past several years. In many ways, it reminds one of those Biblical spectaculars that moviemakers like Cecil B. DeMille used to churn out in the 1950's, the ones that would allow us to wallow in the depiction of all sorts of `sinful' activities, yet when the divine judgments began to fall on the perpetrators, permit us to feel morally superior to it all at the same time. In a similar way, `The Contender,' may come out foursquare against the obsession we seem to have concerning the sex lives of our elected officials but it sure has a fun time devoting two solid hours to the topic. And its fun is ours.
One of the reasons that `The Contender' succeeds so well is because Laine Hanson, as portrayed by the brilliant Joan Allen, is an endlessly fascinating and enigmatic character. We never know quite what to make of her and it is this sense of moral imbalance that draws us in to her plight. Had she been made an innocent victim or a goody-two-shoes, she would quickly lose our interest. As the President, seemingly more concerned with ordering up spectacular dishes from the White House kitchen than with the pressing concerns of affairs of state, Jeff Bridges cuts just as believable and compelling a figure.
As with virtually all films of a political nature, the characters' actions are occasionally inexplicable within the context of practical politics. For example, President Evans rejects one of his top candidates for the VP position for ludicrous reasons. When Governor Jack Hathaway attempts but fails to rescue a woman from her vehicle that has crashed to the bottom of a river, Evans tells Hathaway that he believes the Republicans will try to bring up parallels to Chappaquiddick in an attempt to sink his nomination. Not only is that a patently absurd possibility, but Evans seems blithely unconcerned about the much worse drubbing he and his eventual nominee end up undergoing. Which leads us to the next implausibility Evans' sticking by Hanson far past the point where any real president would have asked for the candidate to withdraw her name. Oh well, `The Contender' may not always ring true in its plotting, but it definitely gets the job done as a piece of titillating pulp drama.
My only serious complaint with the film comes in its closing stretches. Perhaps it is too much, in these days of mandatory happy endings and feel-good emotionalism, to expect the type of clear-eyed cynical conclusions we were treated to in movies like `The Candidate' or `The Best Man,' but the upbeat, fairy tale resolution here is unworthy of all the good stuff that has gone before it. By climbing onto a soapbox and deigning to lecture to us all, Lurie cops out on both Hanson and the audience - striving for the type of phony inspirationalism that went out with `Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' way back in the 1930's. Such an obvious sop to the box office leaves us with a bit of a sour aftertaste after all is said and done. (Also, Lurie needs to shed himself of the gimmick he seems to have latched onto in both his films thus far that of the melodramatic `surprise' turnabout ending. It didn't work in `Deterrence' and it doesn't work here).
Yet, despite its sundry flaws, `The Contender' emerges as one of the most compelling and fast-moving two hours you are likely to see in a long time. You may feel like taking a shower when it's all over (maybe that explains the need Lurie may have had in providing a `moral bath' in the last 15 minutes or so), but you will at least have had a great time getting dirty.
- Jul 21, 2001