The Contender

Directed by Rod Lurie
Starring: Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, Sam Elliot, William L. Petersen, Philip Baker Hall, Saul Rubinek.
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content and language.

Review by Matt Heffernan <matt@filmhead.com>
October 19, 2000

Rod Lurie, as some readers from the west coast may know, is a film critic in Los Angeles, or at least he was. He directed his first feature film (Deterrence) last year, and it received very limited distribution a few months ago. It peaked at 17 screens, and quickly went away, and I had no time to catch it or even acknowledge its existence -- until now. Last Friday, his second film was released to 1516 screens for its debut. With such quick progress, it's no wonder that Lurie's profession is no longer film criticism.

Sometime in the not-too-distant future (or maybe a slightly reconfigured present -- the timeline wasn't too clear), President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges), a Democrat, must select a new vice president after the death of the previous one. A governor in the party, Jack Hathaway (William L. Petersen) is the apparent choice. However, when a daring attempt by Hathaway to rescue a woman who drove off a bridge fails, the president nominates his second choice: Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen).

She would be the first woman to hold the office, but she must face the scrutiny of a congressional panel (as Ford and Rockefeller had in the 1970s). Heading the panel is Rep. Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), a Republican who is wary of the president's choice. He assembles a bipartisan panel, but uses a young Democrat (Christian Slater) as a ringer for his side. They plan to embarrass Hanson with an account of a group-sex exhibition that she allegedly participated in while in college. She refuses to confirm or deny the story, maintaining that it is beneath her dignity to respond.

This dilemma of principle and politics is what drives The Contender through a tense and engaging two hours. It's not easy to turn a congressional hearing into entertainment, but writer/director Lurie has managed to do just that. Deterrence was also a presidential thriller, so it seems that his interests lie well beyond Hollywood. This enthusiasm for politics is contagious, and I was often wrapped up in the grand scheming in the story.

Of course, a great debt is owed to the cast. Allen, Oldman (who is nearly unrecognizable behind freakish makeup and a flawless accent), and Bridges are excellent leads, providing the virtuoso performances that this opera requires. Oldman is especially evil, and at times way over the top. The liberal leanings of Lurie are quite clear, and his ultimate Republican is nothing short of a monster. I suppose that Trent Lott wouldn't be as engaging a film character, so it can be forgiven.

I'm sure that more conservative filmgoers may not enjoy the film quite as much. One such person stormed out of the theatre where I saw it, yelling his disapproval to the audience at a key moment in the film. Could he have been the basis for Oldman's character?


For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
The Contender (2000)

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The Contender (2000) -- VHS
The Contender (2000) -- DVD


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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan