In his sophomore effort, the political melodrama “The Contender,” Rod Lurie shows vast improvement as a writer and director over his feature debut “Deterrence,” which was both an artistic and commercial disappointment. Like his first film, “The Contender” is set in the political arena and revolves around the power elite. But unlike that 1999 wannabe thriller, the subject matter of the new pic is more interesting, the range of issues more challenging and the mode more entertaining. Heading a gifted ensemble, Joan Allen shines as a Vice Presidential nominee who decides to take the high moral ground when her candidacy is smeared by a sex scandal from her youth. With the right handling, the DreamWorks release may score modest numbers, provided the election season offers conducive environment, and not an obstacle.
Lurie is obviously enamored of the political film, a genre that’s all but vanished from mainstream American cinema. If “Deterrence” was an outgrowth of such 1960s pics as “Fail Safe,” “The Contender” is more in the vein of “Advise and Consent” with its expose of Washington’s wheeling and dealing.
“Contender” suffers from being too obvious and verbose. Moreover, by wearing its idealistic sentiments on its sleeves, pic falls short of its goal to be a provocative expose about the increasingly blurred line between the public and private arena, and the inevitable impingement of candidates’ past behavior on their present standing.
Yarn begins when Sen. Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), out on a fishing trip, observes a tragic accident in which a red car slides off the bridge and sinks into a lake. Without a blink, he jumps into the water but it’s too late to save the woman trapped inside. Already respected for his integrity, Jack’s status is boosted by his heroics, which increases his chances to be nominated as second-in-command to President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges), when the sitting VP suddenly dies. (Similar plot device was used in “Deterrence,” when Kevin Pollack’s President Emerson takes office after the incumbent President’s death).
Much to everyone’s amazement, the President decides to appoint a woman, Sen. Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). Ending his second term, Jackson feels that nominating a woman for the job is the right thing to do. Not surprisingly, his selection meets with opposition not only from his staff members, but also from members of both parties, particularly Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), a powerful adversary who will stop at nothing to discredit Jackson’s candidate.
Hanson’s confirmation hearings set off controversy when it turns out that she is a former Republican who switched parties. A further investigation reveals a shocking incident from Hanson’s past, supported by photographs taken during a sexual orgy with two men while she was in college. Hanson doesn’t deny the accusations, which threaten both her political future and her personal life, as she’s now happily married and the mother of a young boy.
Hanson’s courage emerges when she takes the stand and refuses to give in, despite coercion from both sides.
In the first reels, Lurie finds interesting ways to introduce a gallery of colorful characters that include White House staff members Kermit Newman (Sam Elliott) and Jerry Toliver (Saul Rubineck). Through smooth transitions, he exposes the central personas’ pasts and motivations. There are several wonderfully acted episodes, such as the one that shows a meeting between Hanson and her critical father, politician Oscar Billings (the splendid Philip Baker Hall).
Unfortunately, pic is more about debatable principles than real politics, and in the second, excessively schematic half, Lurie throws into the mix various issues (abortion, women in politics) just in order to expose different points of view. Though serving up the plot, the sudden revelations in the last act are not very convincing.
Lurie propagates old-fashioned values, such as moral integrity and sincerity of character. “The Contender” may be dismissed by harsh critics as an idealistic fable for the 1990s, one that depicts America as a society in which women are given fair shot, in which there are no double standards and in which high principles are cherished and rewarded in politics.
The large, talented cast elevates the film above the trappings of its loquacious debates, particularly Allen, who uses her trademark intelligence and dignity to to give a commanding performance.
Playing the film’s most cliched role, a President who’s more interested in gourmet food than in issues, Bridges is entertaining. The hardly recognizable Oldman (also credited as exec producer) enacts the nasty elements of his part with relish. In small roles, the rest of the ensemble is equally good.
Tech credits are proficient across the board as befits the modestly scaled production.