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The Contender

DreamWorks Home Entertainment

Starring Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges,
Sam Elliot, and Christian Slater

Written and directed by Rod Lurie

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"The people of this nation can stomach quite a bit. But one thing they can't stomach is the image of a Vice President with a mouth full of cock!"

— Sam Elliot as Chief of Staff Kermit Newman, The Contender

Just to let you know what kind of turf The Contender is playing on, early on the President of the United States denies a popular governor the nomination for the vacant Vice President's job because he tried, but failed, to save a drowning girl in a car wreck he witnessed. POTUS' rationale: "We don't want another Chappaquiddick on our hands." The dubious nature — then unknown — of the incident aside, the implication is that regardless of surely non-partisan heroism, the Republicans in congress would manipulate the incident into a political albatross that would sink the nomination process.

Now that's just dumb. But, to his credit, writer-director Rod Lurie is a little more clever in staking out his ideological territory throughout the rest of his sordid-yet-indignant response to the inflammatory political atmosphere of the Clinton Years. It's fair to say that Lurie wasn't motivated by any burning thematic or narrative invention here. This is old-school election-year propaganda, plain and simple.

Yes, the Vice President has died, and President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges, affecting a weird, slow, "solemn" voice) must nominate a replacement. In the face of conventional wisdom, Evans picks Senator Laine Hanson (D-OH), a peripheral player on the Hill — and the daughter of a powerful GOP politico — who caused a minor stir years earlier switching to the Blue side of the aisle. Despite obvious male front-runners for the post, Evans feels it's his legacy to put a woman in the office.

Any hopes for a smooth nomination process, however, are swept aside when the weasely Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Shelley Runyon (Gary Oldman, in sharp makeup that makes his forehead look 30 years older than the rest of him), comes across old photos of the Senator as a sorority pledge making naked friends with two frat boys at the same mixer, if you know what I mean.

Hanson refuses to refute or acknowledge the accusations, insisting that her private behavior should remain so. As the mean conservatives stockpile more ammo — some fabricated — against her, Hanson stoically refuses to fight dirty, responding instead with a rousing laundry-list of political beliefs.

Lurie stacks the deck well. Even though he admits to being an unashamed liberal, he carefully constructs his narrative, trying to avoid the appearance of unwieldy bias. Several Democrats in the film show questionable motives. One (William L. Petersen) stages a car wreck to further his career. Another (Christian Slater) plays dirty politics because he believes it serves a greater good. And President Evans, too, is shown as cynically choosing Hanson for the purpose of legacy rather than best-serving the country. But it's no mistake that the first two have conspicuously close relationships with ruthless Republican congressman Runyon. The President redeems himself with a rousing laundry list of political beliefs.

As it goes for the opposition party, Lurie sees rather fewer shades of gray. Aside from Oldman, who is eventually humiliated by his own hubris, the only other Republicans on view are hysteric reactionaries, save for a brief appearance by Philip Baker Hall, as Hanson's father, who shows no pride that his daughter has been nominated for VP — perhaps due to their different party affiliations.

Lurie piles it higher with some heavy-handed imagery, like Hanson jogging amongst the headstones of Arlington. Is she, too, a brave soldier felled in the pursuit of liberty? Or Slater's neophyte congressman standing in front of the White House portrait of John F. Kennedy, similarly posed with arms folded and head bowed. Is he, too, a naive idealist soon to lose his innocence? Or Oldman chewing vigorously on red meat! Or Bridges ruthlessly chomping into a shark sandwich!

The point is not that Lurie is a liberal, but, in the pursuit of filmmaking, following political sympathies at the expense of developing rich narrative and complex characters is a lose-lose situation. It can alienate some and leave others cheering, but emptily, with nothing but cardboard reinforcements to root for.

Lacking the truly potent iconic power that elevates select propaganda into the realm of art — see Triumph of the Will and I Am Cuba — Lurie's The Contender is even politically worthless. While it may seduce some too dim to approach it cynically, its politics are reduced to snips of shallow, noble-sounding rhetoric or hysterical opposition, unconvincing on either side. More often than not it reeks of the pettiness Lurie's 'brave' characters so soundly decry.

Hanson asserts the importance of the separation between Church and State in one breath, and in the next declares that her Church is the State. How does that work? And when Runyon confronts Hanson on her pro-life position he takes the measured political tack of screaming at her until he is red-faced and unable to continue (that Oldman accused DreamWorks of vilifying his character is ludicrous, given his shifty performance).

Treating your politics like religion and your opponent's politics like idiotic rants may be good for a laugh amongst the like-minded, but as public discourse it only inflames the very climate of contention that Lurie pretends to denounce. Intelligently exploring the gray areas of life typically makes for riveting, substantial drama. Something tells me that's not what Lurie after.

Yet, for all his — and Senator Hanson's and President Evans' — posturing, in the end Lurie hedges his bets and pusses out on the film's overriding principle that private sexual behavior has no relevance in public life. In a baffling scene at the tail end of Hanson's refusal to engage the great controversy, she breaks her silence privately to the President, explaining that the accusations are factually untrue. If Lurie's premise that such issues are irrelevant is valid, then why exculpate his heroine in the final moments? Is it, after all, important to the filmmakers that the audience not think she's a dirty slut? Should we hold movie characters to higher standards than elected officials? It's a disgraceful moment of thematic cowardice, not to mention raising the deadly suggestion that if she had only be honest in the first place, none of this would have been necessary. The only "greatness" this displays is a great waste of time, and a dirtying, squalid, whiny one at that.

In the plus column, the performances throughout The contender are first-rate, save for Bridges' odd vocal stylings, and in the current political climate the film is always interesting, if seldom credible. With a little more reason and thought it could've been more than the bum that it is.

DreamWorks put together a fine set of features for this disc, including a crystal 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, and DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby 2.0 Surround soundtracks. Also inlcluded is a self-congratulatory commentary track with Lurie and star Allen, who offers little beyond persistent agreement with her director, plus deleted scenes and a behind-the-scenes featurette. All contained within a typically impenetrable DreamWorks keep-case.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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