Joan AllenJeff BridgesWilliam PetersenSaul Rubinek
The Contender
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Writer/director: Rod Lurie
Actor: Gary Oldman, Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, Sam Elliott, William Petersen, Saul Rubinek, Philip Baker Hall, Mike Binder, Robin Thomas, Mariel Hemingway, Kathryn Morris, Kristen Shaw, Douglas Urbanski, Noah Fryrear
Keywords: Oscar-nominated
Country: USA, Germany, UK
Format: 126 minutes
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 31 March 2011
It was Oscar-nominated for both Best Actress (Joan Allen) and Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges). For a moment I puzzled myself by thinking the latter nomination had been for Gary Oldman, not Bridges, but that's only because Oldman's merely excellent here rather than outstanding.
Me, I thought you'd have to be insane to call it a bad film, but it doesn't translate well.
The film's premise is that there's a vacancy for vice president of the United States of America. The previous incubent died a little while ago and the president (Jeff Bridges) still hasn't chosen a replacement. The story involves the process of choosing, vetting, confirmation hearings and so on. Bridges's favoured candidate falls afoul of various issues coming to light, despite the fact that they're unproven and entirely personal matters from the distant past that would have no bearing on the job.
What's good about the film is how pointed it is. It's not trying to please everyone and be apolitical. You have Republicans, Democrats and the tensions between them. You have the screenplay tackling head-on the double standards and ethical problems involved when a politician falls afoul of revelations about their personal life. (Yes, they talk about Bill Clinton.) There's a line they use... "not guilty, but responsible." This is good stuff. I particularly enjoyed seeing the differences between the characters regarding what's a permissible line of attack and what makes particular people squeamish. Then on top of that, they raise real political issues, e.g. abortion. The characters make strong, clear arguments and the movie isn't afraid to leave you in no doubt about what it thinks. There's one particularly powerful speech from Allen, while I loved the final discussion between her and Bridges.
In other words, it's wearing its heart on its sleeve. This is a good thing, even if occasionally the film takes it too far. An FBI agent makes a speech about how much Allen means to her and to all women. I was also disappointed in the ending, which goes for the big sentimental load of marshmallow just when I'd thought they were going somewhere spikier and less reassuring.
That's not my problem with it, though. It's just that the film's being very specific about American politics in the year 2000, in a way that doesn't translate well to another country in another decade. Fundamentally the media rumpus is silly. You're supposed to take it all very seriously, but I couldn't. So they're making a fuss about who's going to be the next vice president, due to alleged sexual shenanigans. Well, strike me pink. There are ladies in the Japanese parliament who've not only performed extreme sex acts for money on any number of near-strangers, but then sold the DVDs. Similarly the abortion discussion just looked ridiculous to me, no matter that this is a real debate that's rousing feelings every bit as strong in America right now. I think those people are ridiculous too. The modern Tea Party movement makes it seem odd that Allen's character used to stand as a Republican, although that's just my subjective perception. Then finally you've got the fact that the movie's making play out of the notion that a woman might run for the position of vice-president of America, which has unfortunately since been trumped by the real presidential race of 2008 having been between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton.
It's just not as compelling as it might have been. I liked it, but I wouldn't have lost sleep if someone had walked in and changed the channel.
There are mildly interesting motifs. Politicians keep playing sport, but always on their own. There's not a team player among them. If it's not a solitary sport to begin with (fishing, golf, bowling), then they'll just be practising it (tennis, basketball). Then there's the food motif, with Bridges's ongoing challenge with the White House's kitchen staff to come up with a spontaneous request they can't deliver. Every time he calls a meeting, whether formal or informal, he's either eating food or ordering some.
The acting's excellent, of course. Both Bridges and Oldman disappear into their roles. Obviously it's easier to get Oscar-nominated in something like this than it would be in, say, a Nightmare on Elm Street movie, but even so Bridges is a joy to watch and Joan Allen takes complete control. Rod Lurie wrote the film for her. It's a tricky role, which could have been made unlikeable in any of several different ways. Allen hits all the right notes, but what's more keeps them in balance. It's her control of tone that's as important as anything else here. She's sensual, flawed, proud, intellectual and unbending in her principles without being annoying about it.
Overall, it's pretty good. It's lost a bit of steam, I think, and I don't think anyone's ever going to think it hits greatness. However it feels authentic enough that it's enjoyable just for its verisimilitude, notwithstanding cool but far-fetched bits like the one in Act Three. It's got that documentary edge that always helps a movie, plus it's also capable of being funny. Definitely recommended to anyone interested in American politics. It's silly, but only in a way that reflects real life. If nothing else it's intelligent and passionate about its ethical issues, which is something that's got to be applauded.
"You're the future of the Democratic party and you always will be."