The timing couldn't be better for director Ron Lurie's sophomore effort, "The Contender", a political thriller detailing the public brinkmanship and backroom deals during the confirmation of a new Vice President. With the American public heading into the polls in the next few weeks, the popularity of the NBC White House drama "The West Wing" (so popular that the majority of Americans polled would rather vote for Martin Sheen's character on the show for President), and the Monica Lewinsky embarrassment still fresh in the minds of many, the once-mundane inner workings of the American government have never been more interesting to so many. To Lurie's credit, the execution of "The Contender" is both sharp and credible, which should make this film a serious contender for Oscar nominations.
The film begins three weeks after the death of the Vice President with the office still vacant. Democratic President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges of "Arlington Road") is on the verge of appointing the new Vice President, with the odds-on favorite being Governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen of "To Live and Die in L.A."), who has recently gained the adoration of the public after unsuccessfully trying to save a woman from drowning in the aftermath of a car crash. Unfortunately, Evans has other ideas, and he asks Hathaway to bow out to avoid a Ted Kennedy-type scandal during the confirmation process.
In reality, Evans is more concerned about his legacy, as he feels that nominating a woman to Vice President, Ohio Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen of "Pleasantville"), will secure his place in history. Driven by his own ego, Evans makes the historic announcement, and almost immediately, his political rivals begin sharpening their knives. His chief opponent, Republican Congressman Sheldon Runyon (Gary Oldman of "Air Force One"), is running the confirmation hearing, and is determined to make the process as difficult for Hanson as possible, since he feels Hathaway is the 'better man'. There is also some bad blood between Hanson and Runyon since the Vice President-designate once belonged to the Republican Party before jumping ship to join the Democrats.
It is very clear that Runyon will not 'confirm a woman just because she is a woman', and immediately sends his staff off to dig into the past of the Honorable Gentlelady from Ohio. To Runyon's delight, his staff digs up some damning pictures and depositions that seem to indicate that Hanson was involved in a 'gang bang' during her freshman year in college. Very quickly, Hanson finds herself in the crosshairs of the confirmation committee, who question her loyalty, her stand on controversial issues, and yes, the allegations of her involvement in 'deviant sex'. Though her opponents pull no punches with their probing, Hanson refuses to dignify the allegations or stoop to the level of muck-raking being inflicted on her. Unfortunately, sticking to her moral principles may cost her the office of the Vice President.
From its opening prologue to its surprising and inspiring denouement, this star-studded production is a well-paced and detailed dissection of character assassination, as it illustrates the attacks and counter-attacks employed by each side. The film's most riveting scenes are when Runyon's style is contrasted with that of Hanson-whereas Runyon gives a hypocritically cordial face to his innuendo and rumor-mongering, Hanson can be seen biting her tongue, even when armed with damning counter-allegations that could be very damaging to Runyon, since she refuses to play the game 'their way'. Fans of the ideological battles featured each week on "The West Wing" will have a field day with how "The Contender" delves into how 'the process' really works, as opposed to how they would like you to think it works.
To help bring this microscopic examination of White House goings-on to life, Lurie has assembled a top-notch cast. Joan Allen is believable as the besieged Vice President-designate, and her portrayal of Hanson keeps the audience guessing as to whether she is keeping mum on the allegations because of her moral principles, or if she truly has something ugly in her past to hide. Bridges plays a President who seems to be somewhat related to his 'The Dude' character from "The Big Lebowski"-irreverent and governing without passion, he is a petty man who seems more concerned about eating and putting on a good show. Bridges also adeptly handles the transformation that his character undergoes as Hanson's principles and passion seem to rub off on the President, who regains his idealism at the eleventh hour. Oldman, who also exec-produced the film, has always been a chameleon, playing a varied assortment of characters through his careers, from the Rastafarian drug dealer in "True Romance" to the coked-out DEA officer in "The Professional". In "The Contender", Oldman is almost unrecognizable when he chews scenery as a cold-hearted curmudgeon on the attack , a modern-day Joe McCarthy who genuinely believes in what he is doing.
Rounding out the cast are a number of terrific supporting performances. Christian Slater ("Hard Rain") does a memorable turn as a Democratic freshman congressman on the confirmation committee who wrestles with divided loyalties arising out of his own political affiliations, his devotion to Hathaway, and his manipulation by Runyon. William Petersen makes up for his bad Bill Clinton imitation in "The Skulls" by playing the charismatic Senator who is not exactly as he appears. Finally, Sam Elliot (also of "The Big Lebowski") goes over-the-top as Evans' attack dog, who is as ruthless as Runyon when it comes to defending the administration-one memorable scene has Elliot foaming at the mouth over his staff only being able to turn up SEC irregularities (instead of sexual indiscretions) when they dig through Runyon's past.
Last year, "The Insider" was the 'serious' film of the fall movie-going season as it dissected the tarnishing of journalistic integrity at "60 Minutes". This year, it seems the baton has been passed to "The Contender". Filled with high-stakes drama and suspense, "The Contender" is an engaging and entertaining journey into the ugly underside of American politics. It raises questions about how anyone can thrive in the political arena without succumbing to its depraved rules of engagement, and how past indiscretions, or even the hint of past indiscretion, can never be fully laid to rest.