Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: The Contender (2000)
Studio Line: DreamWorks - Sometimes you can assassinate a leader without firing a shot.

"The most controversial movie in years," claims Joel Siegel of Good Morning America.

Power comes at a stunning price, in this electrifying thriller that features riveting performances by an all-star cast. The vice president is dead, and as the president (Jeff Bridges) makes his choice for a replacement, a secret contest of wills is being waged by a formidable rival (Gary Oldman). When Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) is nominated as the first woman in history to hold the office, hidden agendas explode into a battle for power.

Critics rave that The Contender is "the most important American film in years…a remarkably powerful and provocative thriller," (Jeff Craig, Sixty Second Preview).

Director: Rod Lurie
Cast: Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman, Sam Elliott, Christian Slater, Robin Thomas, Mike Binder, William L. Petersen
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Actress-Joan Allen; Best Supporting Actor-Jeff Bridges. 2001.
Box Office: Budget: $9 million. Opening Weekend: $5.363 million (1516 screens). Gross: $17.804 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround 2.0; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 20 chapters; Rated R; 127 min.; $26.99; street date 3/6/01.
Supplements: Audio Commentary With Director/Writer Rod Lurie and Actress Joan Allen; “The Making of a Political Thriller” Featurette; Deleted Scenes; Trailer; Production Notes; Cast and Crew Biographies.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Larry Groupe

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B-/B

Hollywood doesn’t frequently touch upon political topics, and I’m not sure I can blame them. With the possible exception of Oliver Stone films like JFK and Nixon, audiences tend to avoid the genre like the plague. Highly-touted releases like Bulworth or Primary Colors and smaller films like Wag the Dog and Bob Roberts feel the kiss of death equally; some of these get a lot of press, but the box office results remain fairly dismal.

Speaking for myself, however, I’m happy that we still get these occasional forays into political topics. Maybe it comes as a result of my lifelong residency in the suburbs of Washington DC, but I’ve always loved the subject and I like to see movies that address it. I don’t always enjoy the results, but as with good courtroom dramas, when the picture is well-executed, I find it to be exceedingly stimulating.

The last few months have offered two politically-related dramas, which seems like a bumper crop for the genre. Not only do we rarely find the subject addressed by major studios, but even when they do touch upon politics, recent years have stuck with the comedic vein. I guess that was the natural reaction to the hijinks of the Clinton White House, but now that that building’s residency has changed, perhaps Hollywood thought folks were eager to see more serious approaches to the field.

Or maybe not, since both of the two recent offerings - historical drama Thirteen Days and semi-thriller The Contender - tanked at the box office. The two films received positive critical notices and some Oscar nominations - at least for The Contender, though Thirteen Days was shut out - but failed to find an audience; Thirteen Days snagged a mere $32 million, while The Contender took in an even worse $17 million. That’s chicken feed these days, and it probably doesn’t bode well for the future of such features.

Nonetheless, I hope that these kinds of films continue to get made, because I think they can be very stimulating. For the most part, The Contender falls into the category of a well-made and compelling political drama. It’s not without flaws, but I thought it generally worked nicely.

After the recent death of the Vice President, a successor is needed. The obvious choice - Virginia Governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen) - doesn’t get the nod for some amusing reasons, and President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) turns to a less well-known selection: Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen).

To many, her choice smacks of a political “Affirmative Action” move. As his second term in office winds down, Evans seems obsessed with his “legacy”, and the appointment of the first female Vice President appears to be a way to bolster his historical credentials. Among those who oppose her selection are Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), a former presidential opponent of Evans’ who seems determined to have his revenge for the mysterious “Hartford” incident.

Runyon learns of a sexual incident in which Hanson allegedly participated during college. The rumors fly fast and furious as her confirmation hearings begin. However, she refuses to discuss the matter, whether to confirm or deny it. “Did she or didn’t she?” remains at the heart of the film, and it makes the movie surprisingly compelling.

The Contender fits the mold of a thriller in a loose manner. There’s no action, and it’s not like there’s a killer out in the woods or anything. However, it seems more tense and taut than a pure drama would be, so I think it does qualify as a thriller. The various twists and turns taken by the plot make it moderately nerve-wracking at times, and I was kept interested throughout the majority of the film.

Until the last fourth, that is, when the plot devices overwhelmed the structure. What had been a rich, serious piece became overly mawkish and seemed too concerned with unusual twists. I don’t want to go into the details of what happens, but I found the final act to try too hard to resolve matters neatly without any thought for the program that came before it. The tone shifts fairly radically; All the President’s Men suddenly becomes Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. That’s not a slam on the latter film, but I mention it just to demonstrate the change. I still liked The Contender, but I found the finale to be less than satisfying.

However, the high quality of the preceding 90 minutes or so made up for the ending’s flaws. Much of the reason for this stemmed from the uniformly excellent performances. The Contender’s two Oscar nods came for its actors; both Allen and Bridges were nominated. Allen has shown herself to be a consistently excellent actress, and her portrayal of the senator is no exception. She makes the character well-rounded at all times. Hanson seems appropriately hard-edged but not in the nasty Hollywood bitch mode that’s so prevalent. When Hanson takes the moral stand and refuses to discuss her private business, Allen avoids excessive emotion and makes sure the character doesn’t seem smug or self-righteous. It’s a terrific performance that lends the movie a strong grounding in reality.

Even better is Bridges’ wonderful supporting turn as the president. He virtually steals every scene in which he appears as he uses his limited screen time to create an indelible portrait of a political animal. It’s tough to play the president as anything other than statesman; we never see how a president behaves behind closed doors, so it’s all speculation. I think Bridges provides as believable an account of the non-public president that I’ve seen. He’s wonderfully human but still serious and he shows realistic.

Bridges also offers some of the film’s best comic moments, which are gently inserted into the action. These bits - including a running gag in which Evans tries to stump the ultra-stocked White House kitchen - don’t come across as simple relief; they fit snugly into the structure of the movie and never appeared gratuitous or forced. I think Bridges’ performance is responsible for much of the neat integration, as the character’s changes in tone and mood flow effortlessly. If he doesn’t win the Oscar, there’s something wrong with the system; his cool, slick and rich portrayal of the president is one of the best presentations of a politician I’ve seen.

As Runyon, Oldman again hides himself under a layer of make-up. He’s not quite unrecognizable, but he certainly looks different in the role. I like Oldman, and I think he does well in the part, but I must admit the Lon Chaney routine is getting a little old. Does the guy ever play a role in which he doesn’t have to affect a new accent and/or radically alter his appearance? It’d be nice to see him try something that felt less obviously showy.

Speaking of altered appearances, Sam Elliott looks nearly unrecognizable as presidential advisor Kermit Newman. He finally leaves the 19th century as he cuts his hair and shaves that silly mustache. It’s nice to see Elliott play a part that isn’t a glorified cowboy for once, and he does well in the role. The only problem is that sans mustache and longer hair, he looks an awful lot like James Brolin, and I don’t think Elliott wants anyone to confuse him for someone who would marry Barbra Streisand.

One positive aspect of The Contender is that it tries to discuss sexual double-standards usually without becoming heavy-handed. Other than some mildly emotional testimonials toward the end of the movie - which feature some excessively-emotive music - the flick stays surprisingly cool and objective.

However, I disagreed with some of its theories. For one, we’re told that had a man engaged in the activities of which Laine is accused that no one would have cared. I don’t think that’s really the case. If a male screwed a bunch of women in public at a frat party and there were pictures of it in circulation, I think it’d cause a huge uproar. Yeah, Clinton got away with lots of indiscretions, but a) Clinton redefined the phrase “Teflon president” as he was able to slide through without a scratch when similar actions would have harmed others, and b) we never saw photographic images of Monica Lewinsky - or the others - at work.

Hanson’s alleged escapade wasn’t about the number of partners per se, which is how the characters discuss it; no one’s upset because she’s had sex with more than one or two people in her life. The issue relates to the impression that she was with a few guys at a time and really went over the top. I agree that there is a double-standard for women when it comes to sex; behavior that makes a man a “stud” portrays a woman as a “slut”. However, a frat party gang-bang performed in front of a crown is a totally different issue.

Actually, the film largely ignores a topic that I think would have derailed Hanson’s career much more firmly than college sexcapades: her atheism. She clearly acknowledges that she doesn’t believe in God, which remains something of a kiss of death for politicians. I don’t know if any known atheists have ever achieved substantial political office, but it seems it would be a huge struggle for someone to become a senator with such views. The idea of an atheist Vice President - a heartbeat away from the presidency - would send many folks into a tizzy, and they’d oppose that selection extremely strongly.

I can almost accept an atheist governor or senator in a liberal state, and I can definitely see an atheist in lower office such as the House of Representatives or local government. However, in this day and age, it find it extremely hard to accept that an atheist would stand a chance in hell of getting anywhere near the vice presidency. Lurie should have left out any mentions of her religious status; they have no bearing on the story and simply make it less realistic.

Actually, that raises another small problem I had with The Contender that detracted from its believability. Although the film seems to take place in the present day, we hear mention of the Clinton presidency. Since President Evans is nearing the end of his second term - he has about 18 months to go - this means that the movie can’t take place any sooner than 2007. However, Evans at one point mentions that we’ve entered the new millennium. Granted, considering the length of a millennium, it’ll still be pretty fresh in another six years, but I seriously doubt that anyone will continue to call it “new” in 2007.

The mention of Clinton seemed surprising, since Evans feels like a stand-in for Clinton in many ways; both are relatively young, aggressive political animals. However, the film wants to discuss Clinton so it can focus on the sexual double-standard; we’re told how Clinton’s approval rating went up after his scandals. Unfortunately, the iffy timeline makes the movie less convincing. I recognize that this may seem like nit-picking, but I don’t think it is. Ultimately, the time confusion creates a story that comes across as less solidly-grounded in reality, and these discrepancies tended to take me out of the story.

Despite the variety of flaws about which I’ve harped, I really did like The Contender. They don’t make many movies like this anymore, and that’s a shame. For the most part, the film provides a tight and compelling political thriller that’s buoyed by a series of excellent performances. The Contender isn’t a perfect movie, but it still offers a strong experience.

The DVD:

The Contender appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. As a whole, the movie presented a solid picture that was another winner from DreamWorks.

Sharpness looked consistently crisp and detailed. I discerned almost no instances of any soft or hazy images, as the majority of the film seemed well-defined. No jagged edges appeared, but I did see some shimmering from blinds on a couple of occasions. Print flaws were minor. A few specks crop up from time to time, and some scenes displayed mild grain, but otherwise the picture was clean and fresh.

Colors seemed nicely rendered. The film used some stylized filters at times, but most of it appeared fairly natural, and the hues came through cleanly, with no problems related to noise or bleeding; the tones were clear and vibrant. Black levels seemed nicely deep and dark, and shadow detail was generally appropriately opaque but not excessively thick. A couple of scenes came across as a bit heavy in this regard, but they were exceptions to the rule. Ultimately, I thought The Contender offered a fine visual experience.

Also effective were the film’s soundtracks. The Contender included both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes. I could not discern any differences between the two, as they sounded identical to me.

Due to its nature, The Contender didn’t offer a terribly active soundfield for the most part, but it seemed to fit the material. Much of the film stuck strongly to the center channel because most of the audio involved dialogue. Music and light ambiance spread nicely to the sides, and they also provided modest reinforcement from the rear, but the majority of the movie stayed in the front. I did detect a few exceptions, such as the accident at the start of the film, and a couple of scenes with helicopters; on those occasions, the soundtrack picked up steam and offered a very solid and involving environment. But most of The Contender not only didn’t need such theatrics, but it also would have been harmed by artificially-active audio; as it stands, the soundfield appropriately fit the film.

Audio quality seemed strong. Dialogue always appeared natural and distinct, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects were very clear and accurate and they betrayed no distortion concerns; the quiet scenes seemed convincing, and the louder bits mentioned earlier came across as dynamic and realistic. The Contender featured a fairly gentle score, but it was appropriately clear and bright, with modest bass when necessary. Ultimately, this was a fairly basic soundtrack, but it served the film well and accomplished what it needed to do.

We find a nice smattering of supplements on The Contender, starting with a running audio commentary from writer/director Rod Lurie and actress Joan Allen. The two were recorded together for this screen-specific track. Lurie dominates the piece as the two discuss their experiences on the film, and he provides a generally decent look at the creation of the movie. However, much of the time the track digresses into typical “happy talk” in which all of the other participants are praised, and Allen does little more than echo Lurie’s statements. Too much of the track is also spent simply telling us what’s happening onscreen. The commentary contains some interesting information on occasion, but I must admit that I found it to be a disappointment.

In addition, we get a mildly interesting featurette called “The Making of a Political Thriller”. This 21-minute and 45-second program combines the usual mix of interviews with the principals, shots from the set, and movie clips to offer a decent look at the creation of the film. Honestly, most of the material related to The Contender stays within the promotional tone that typically dominates these featurettes; it was a pleasant experience, but it lacked depth and I learned little about the making of the movie.

Where “The Making of a Political Thriller” differs from most of these sorts of programs, however, is that it takes some time to look to other films in its genre. The featurette for What Lies Beneath took a similar path when it examined director Robert Zemeckis’ career. Here we get a short but solid overview of politically-oriented movies, from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington through the Nineties. We see some clips from these works and even hear interview snippets with folks like Frank Capra Jr. and John Frankenheimer, director of The Manchurian Candidate. It wasn’t a detailed summary of the field, but I thought this component added some depth to what otherwise would have been little more than a glorified trailer.

Next we find some material “From the Cutting Room Floor”. This area offers 10 deleted scenes which are available with or without commentary from director Lurie. In total, we get 15 minutes and 55 seconds worth of clips. There’s some interesting material here, and many would have been good additions to the film. I especially liked Jeff Bridges’ gorilla tale, and I was also happy to see more with the always-fine Philip Baker Hall.

Lurie provides a nice explanation of the reasons why he cut these scenes, and I can’t really quibble with him. Most of the snippets were good, but they would have taken away from the progress of the story. Lurie proves to be a chatty participant as he talks about the scenes and fills us in with more details about the movie.

Some standard extras round out the DVD. We get the film’s theatrical trailer and some text pieces. In the “Cast and Crew” area we find brief but decent biographies for eight actors and 11 crew members. “Production Notes” offers some detailed information about the film and gave me some nice facts. Note that the DVD’s booklet contains an abbreviated version of this text.

Political thrillers don’t pop up on movie screens too frequently, so when we finally get one, it had better be good. For the most part, The Contender fit that bill. It suffers from some problems, most of which center around its somewhat sentimental final act, but as a whole, the film offers a solid and compelling story. It also benefits from uniformly excellent acting, including a stellar performance from Jeff Bridges. The DVD provides very good picture and sound plus a decent complement of extras. Although The Contender was largely ignored at the box office, it’s a compelling film that merits your attention.

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