The Contender poses the provocative and not coincidentally salient
(given recent historical events in American history) question, "just where
should politicians draw the line on their personal lives?" Unfortunately in
positing an answer, this potentially fascinating political and moral drama
devolves into just the sort of prurient fare it purports to indict.
Joan Allen stars as Senator Laine Billings Hanson, a Republican-
turned-Democrat who has been tapped by the lame duck US President
Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) to succeed to the office of the vice presidency
following the untimely death of its previous occupant. Hanson, of course,
has two strikes against her. First and foremost, she is a woman. Secondly,
most of the Washington insiders had expectations that the popular governor,
Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), would be the choice for the job. Indeed,
he would have been had it not been for an unfortunate accident that mirrored
the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappiquidick. Instead, Evans opts
to think of history and make the bold leap of appointing the first female
to the second-highest office in the land.
The confirmation hearings will not be smooth sailing, though, thanks
to the ruthless, conservative congressman Shelley Runyon (Gary Oldman,
who also served as an executive producer) who is determined to torpedo her
approval. Hanson's avowed atheism (she delivers a slightly saccharine speech
about worshipping in "the chapel of democracy") and her pro-choice and
anti-gun stances are merely irritants. Runyon wants a smoking gun and
believes he found it when he ferrets out a story about Hanson's participation
in a sex orgy when she was a college undergraduate, complete with a graphic
videotape. For her part, Senator Hanson opts to take the high road and
offer no comment, sticking to her much-talked about principles.
Much of the film is given over to either backroom machinations (which
are mildly interesting) or Hanson's testimony during her confirmation hearings.
The latter may be fascinating to political junkies who cannot live
without C-SPAN, but to the ordinary moviegoer they will probably prove
sleep-inducing. Part of the problem is that former film critic Lurie has crafted
a script that is too cerebral. The Contender shares some of the same
faults as his first feature, the more intriguing, but equally exasperating
Deterrence: In an effort to be clever and entertaining, Lurie has made
the plot too complicated. Perhaps he should be lauded for attempting
to employ intelligence in filmmaking, but too often the audience feels left
out of the discussion, as if the smart kid is showing off.
Lurie also has not yet mastered the art of directing. In Deterrence,
he limited himself to one set and managed to utilize the claustrophobia
to good use. With the larger budget of The Contender, he seems ill at
ease. There are too many shots included because they look nice (e.g.,
a basketball court with late afternoon sunlight streaming through the
windows, the interior of The White House). Similarly, the dramatic arc of
the scenes often feel misshapen or unformed, leaving the audience at a
loss as to their true intent. Lurie does occasionally hit it right though,
indicating that he has potential. It just seems that he allows his own
political philosophies to interfere in the moviemaking process.
There has already much written about the film, touting Joan Allen's
performance for a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Well, as this has shaped
up so far to be a rather poor year for women, it is possible Ms. Allen may
indeed make the final five. And while it is nice to see her finally break away
from playing from the repressed WASPs she has made her stock in trade for
the past several years (i.e., Nixon, The Crucible, Pleasantville), this hardly
ranks as her best work. She is defeated by the schematic script and Lurie's
limpid direction, neither of which allows this marvelous actress room to soar.
She struggles gamely to make Laine Hanson more than just a two-dimensional
figure, but it doesn't come off.
The male cast members don't fare much better either. Bridges, looking
more like his father Lloyd than ever before, is saddled with playing a
shallow man more caught up in the trappings of the office. (His favorite
thing to do is call the White House kitchen and order food.) Sam Elliott as
his primary advisor has a moment or two but Christian Slater as a
wet-behind-the-ears newcomer to the halls of power flounders while Petersen
is appropriately stalwart. Gary Oldman, wearing oversized hornrims and a
bad wig, over-emotes as the villainous congressman. Undoubtedly if he'd
had a mustache, he would have twirled it. The only real moving and
memorable performance comes from an extended cameo by Mariel
Hemingway as a woman with surprising ties to Laine Hanson.
Coming so close to a presidential election and dealing with issues
of sex and politics -- the legacy of Bill Clinton -- The Contender may find
a brief flurry of interest, but it's moment will quickly pass.
|© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.