by Del Harvey
When the Vice President dies a woman is chosen for the position. Is America ready for a woman in the White House?
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Politics is a bitter drug. In many ways it can destroy that which we hold sacred. And yet it can elevate individuals to their greatest aspirations. It is also the purest barometer of a society’s moral beliefs. The Contender is a litmus test for the American people: are we ready for a woman in the White House? In command of our nation? Possibly to step in as Commander-in-Chief should something happen to the leader of our country?
This review is being written early in October of 2000, during the heat of the 2000 Presidential campaign. It heightens the experience, not only because it is so apropos, but there is always the chance the morality lesson of this film may sway some voters.
In The Contender, Jeff Bridges (Tucker, The Fisher King, The Big Lebowski) plays President Jackson Evans, a very wily politician with a seemingly self-satisfying agenda - to leave a legacy behind from his time in office. It appears as though he has made his decision for a successor to the recently deceased Vice President. Or has he? This is politics, and many things are not as they appear.
William Peterson (Manhunter, Cousins, To Live And Die In L.A.) is Governor Jack Hathaway, the people’s choice to take the vacant seat as the President’s right-hand man, and a Democrat who has succeeded in blurring the barrier between Democrats and Republicans. As the film opens he is fishing from a small boat, under a bridge, with another man who happens to be a reporter. Suddenly a car crashes through the barrier overhead and plunges into the water right next to them. Governor Hathaway dives in to save the car’s occupants without a second thought for his own safety. The reporter is overcome by the heroics and is on the phone immediately, calling in the story as it happens.
Seeming to be the perfect choice for Vice President, Hathaway is turned down in a private meeting with the President. The Pres’ Chief Advisor Kermit Newman, played the wonderful Sam Elliott, explains it to him thus, “We don’t want another Chappaquiddick.” Dazed and confused, the Governor withdraws his hat from the race.
Scrambling for another candidate, the President argues that Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen - Nixon, Face/Off, Tucker) is the perfect choice. She’s strong, she’s intelligent, she believes in all the right things, and perhaps most important to Evans, she will be his lasting legacy.
But, again, this is politics, and things are sometimes not as they appear.
The Republican Party leader, Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman - Sid & Nancy, Dracula, The Professional), is out for blood. He is determined to get back at the Democrats for beating his candidate in the last election, and he comes after Hanson with both guns blazing. Sure enough, he turns up a sex scandal deep in Hanson’s past.
I enjoyed this film a lot. I found myself sucked in during the early moments and enjoying the ride right to the end. That’s not to say the thing could not have stood a little judicious cutting; I think there must have been 10 to 15 minutes in there my butt could have done without. However, the message at the heart of this film is a difficult one of some audience members to accept, and that is the woman in the White House angle. Knowing this makes it a little easier to forgive the length of the film, but that doesn’t mean everyone will.
Director Rod Lurie (Deterrence) has done an outstanding job with a very complicated story. And there is a whole lot going on in this film. It demands your attention right from the beginning for there are subtleties that could easily be missed. Lurie calls himself a “political junkie” in one recent interview, and the script for The Contender bears this out.
The cinematography (Denis Maloney) is top notch, and at times striking. The soundtrack (Larry Groupe) was unobtrusive and a fine underscoring of a very dramatic piece of work.
The acting is, in a number of specific cases, excellent. Joan Allen will probably get Academy nomination for Best Actress. She has several confrontational scenes and gives a speech that is simply powerful. Jeff Bridges pulls a hat trick as the supremely professional politician who appear to be a buffoon and then surprises you with a riveting speech. Gary Oldman gives cinema another classic villain to add to the long rank of classic villains so ably portrayed by the likes of Vincent Price, James Mason, and Lionel Barrymore. He, too, should get Academy consideration for Best Supporting Actor. And Christian Slater proves once again why he continues to get a second chance with meaty roles like this. He is a very good actor and it’s time he made the change to leading actor and it’s time that he make it stick.
But here I want to add a personal note regarding one of my favorite leading male actors. Sam Elliott plays Presidential advisor Kermit Newman to perfection. He is a great actor who has never quite been given the opportunity he deserves. He has shown signs of great ability with small roles in films such as Mask, Shakedown, Prancer, and Rush. He has made his living in television, mostly starring in westerns, and most of those were written by Louis L’Amour. I have often wondered why he never broke it big in the action genre, which seems perfectly suited to his demeanor and style. In any case, he has taken this opportunity and turned it into a showcase. Often his advisor seems to be the voice of the President, which affords him a good deal of exposure to the audience. Perhaps now he will begin to get the notice he deserves.
The Contender is a very good film, and come Oscar time, should receive several nominations. It is a twisted, convoluted, intelligent story that should mesmerize most viewers with its political intrigue and drama.
It opens on October 13th, nationwide.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago and is a survivor of Lucasfilm, the Walt Disney Company, and the Directors Guild of America.
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