The Contender

on October 13, 2000 by Shlomo Schwartzberg
   "The Contender" is one Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), a U.S. senator picked by the sitting president (Jeff Bridges) to replace the recently deceased vice president. Opposing them is the head of the House Judiciary, Sheldon Runyon (Gary Oldman), who, for personal reasons, is determined to block her appointment at all costs.

   Rod Lurie, whose debut, "Deterrence" was a crackling and complex political thriller, seems at first to be heading in the same smart direction with "The Contender." When a sexual indiscretion from Hanson's past suddenly surfaces, she refuses to comment on it, not even confirming nor denying whether it did indeed happen. That forces Runyon to try to get at her in other ways, including assailing her morality and politics, in order to make she never becomes vice president.

   But what seems to be a hard hitting look at the political--and moral--expediency of American politics and its destructive partisanship, turns soft. Lurie doesn't trust his audience and inserts some speechifying--where Runyon's wife lectures him about his stance and a young senator (Christian Slater) realizes he's backing the wrong horse--which simplifies the material. Then the jingoism and patriotism kicks in and Chomsky becomes Capra, as honesty is tossed by the wayside in favor of the usual Hollywood upbeat ending.

   This cop-out undermines the fine performances of Bridges as the earthy, stubborn president and Allen, for whom the role was written, as the determined Hanson. Their rough edges are sanded away, and by film's end, these "good guys" aren't morally complex anymore. And while Oldman's Runyon is more of a villainous cardboard cutout than a flesh and blood person, even his few character shadings are dropped eventually. Lacking the courage of its convictions, "The Contender" emerges as an also-ran. Starring Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman. Directed and written by Rod Lurie. Produced by Marc Frydman, Douglas Urbanski, Willi Baer and James Spier. A DreamWorks release. Drama. Rated R for strong sexual content and language. Running time: 125 min

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