The Contender

             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
     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.

                                             Rating:        C-
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.