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   THE CONTENDER (2000) 

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CAST
Joan Allen
Gary Oldman
Jeff Bridges
Sam Elliott
Christian Slater
William L. Petersen
Philip Baker Hall
Saul Rubinek
Mike Binder
Mariel Hemingway

DIRECTED BY
Rod Lurie

PURCHASE


DVD




Time: 126 mins.
Rating: R
Genre: Political Drama

Academy Award nominations for Best Actress (Allen) and Best Supporting Actor (Bridges).


I have to say that I'm generally not interested in politics – in the real world or onscreen. Even though I know "The West Wing" is probably a great show – its writer/producer Aaron Sorkin is brilliant – I just can't seem to get motivated to watch. That being said, the main reason I went to see THE CONTENDER is because it was a free screening. I was intrigued by the cast, who are all extremely talented and do good work here, but that still would not have been enough to get my butt in the theater. In the end, THE CONTENDER is an intelligent and interesting look at the internal workings of the political arena. It held my attention, which is saying a lot. Unfortunately, it tells a somewhat sordid tale that is at times way over-the-top about people that aren't very likable. I'm sure their true to life counterparts are even more slimy and manipulative, but it doesn't make for a warm and happy film-going experience.

The basic premise has the President, played by Jeff Bridges, in a quandary about who to nominate for the position of Vice President after the death of the current VP. Everyone is expecting him to name the party up-and-comer, Governor Jack Hathaway, whose public rating is high due to a recent heroic gesture. However, the President goes in a completely different direction, nominating Laine Hanson (Allen), a female senator. He wants his legacy to be progress in the White House and putting a woman in this position will guarantee him a place in history. Laine doesn't seem to care what his reasons are, she's thrilled to be given the chance and is up to the task. She's the only one who believes that. The nominating committee, lead by Congressman Shelley Runyan (Oldman), is less than pleased with the President's choice and is out to make sure that she does not pass the vote. With the help of his fellow committee members they dig up a nasty sex scandal to embarrass Laine and the administration.


"Principles only mean something when you stick to them when its inconvenient."

They expect that she will make some sort of comment – either admitting her guilt or denying it – but she refuses to comment, claiming it's none of their business who she slept with in college, when it has no bearing on her current life or capabilities as a candidate. Once revealed, the rest of the movie hinges on whether the rumor is true – they have photos that look like her. She claims that if she was a man, no one would care how many sexual partners she had in college and that she's standing up for the rights of women to be treated equally in matters of their sexuality. That's all well and good, except for the fact that the film cops out in the end. If the film maker's truly believed that, they never would have revealed the truth, leaving her past actions ambiguous and therefore making them irrelevant.

If the "people" in the film don't get to know, why does the audience? I'm sure it was to make sure we believed the president was choosing someone decent and good, someone we would be proud of, to make his final speech all that more meaningful. However, for me it was a hollow gesture. Just because she supposedly slept with 2 men at the same time when she was 19 doesn't make her a "bad" person in my opinion, so why must she be redeemed? There were several scenes in the film that proved her intelligence and decency, why ruin everything by spelling it out? It didn't matter one bit to the president whether she was slutty or not. He just wanted his name in the history books as the president who ushered in equality in the White House and she happened to be the best woman for the job at the time. Plus, the scene on the lawn where she tells him what happened was inappropriate and creepy. It was like he was trying to cop a feel. It was too intimate a moment for two people who barely knew one another.

Despite the fact that the film reneges on some of principle points, it was still extremely engaging. The acting was first-rate by all involved, especially Bridges and Allen. He was funny, charming and cocky, just like you'd imagine a president to act. Allen is one of the best actresses around and she shows off her chops here. I'd vote for her. It was nice to see Christian Slater on the screen again. He's a good actor when given a decent part to play. Gary Oldman is Oldman, disappearing perfectly in to yet another role. There were some moments that were so overly dramatic you just had to laugh, but for the most part the theatrics were believable and interesting. I was not surprised by the "twist" at the end. Well, actually I was by the ridiculousness of it. I guess they wanted something really big and shocking to convince Runyan that Laine was the right choice, but what they came up with was fairly unbelievable. I guess they wanted no doubt in the audiences mind who the best candidate was.

If you're looking for an intelligent, well-acted film and don't hate politics, you will probable enjoy THE CONTENDER. It's nothing ground-breaking, but it does give you a glimpse into the ultimate arena of power that's very interesting...even if it were only half true.



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