The Contender

"Bad"

The Contender Review


A day after The West Wing ruled the Emmy Awards, Rod Lurie's White House drama The Contender screened at the Boston Film Festival. With that kind of timing, comparisons are unavoidable. So with The Contender boasting an intriguing storyline (woman nominated for the Vice Presidency) and a top-line cast, how is it that I was pining for Martin Sheen by movie's end? I blame Lurie, for what I believe to be a true dud of the fall season.

Lurie is an L.A. film critic-turned-filmmaker who made his debut with last year's virtually unseen Deterrence, with Kevin Pollak as the President. Lurie's back to politics again, and this time it's Jeff Bridges as Commander-In-Chief, and he'd like to appoint Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen, in a role written especially for her) to the VP vacancy. Not so easy. The Senator has enemies, like Gary Oldman's Congressman Sheldon Runyon. His team digs up dirty pictures from Hanson's youth, and all hell breaks loose for the Senator.

It's not so much fun for us either. The primary problem is that Lurie just can't direct. He rushes and bumps through his somewhat appealing script in the first half, just so we can get to that naughty photo. And with predictable plot points, such as a clumsy, oh-so-secret rendezvous to pass over the pictures, it seems that Lurie read some book about moments needed to make a government conspiracy movie. No wonder the guy's favorite film is All the President's Men.

And I'm not sure he knows where to place the camera. Not once do we get a satisfying wide shot within the Oval Office, or anywhere in the White House for that matter (don't have that trouble with The West Wing, do you?). At one point, he follows Oldman running down a set of stairs with a jarring, useless Steadicam shot, borrowing from others' styles with no narrative purpose.

Speaking of narrative, there are problems there too. Lurie's subject matter is admirable, but it takes way too long to get from setup to dénouement. Much of the screenplay smacks of a trying-too-hard intensity, and scattered visuals (the Senator jogs through Arlington National Cemetery -- I get it!) are as heavy-handed as Lurie's obvious politics. And although The President's been in office 6 1/2 years, he's continually amazed by the variety of food at the White House, ordering a snack at every opportunity. Cute once, passable twice, stupid the fifth time.

What's inexcusable, though, is the hypocrisy in this film. While Lurie chides the act of digging up the photo, he revels in its discovery, showing us a gang-bang snapshot 5 or 6 times. Later, after his screenplay smartly supports a politician's right to privacy, and we're sure Hanson's past is immaterial to her success, the President asks for lurid details and she tells him! In my eyes, that cheats the character, and it's a huge, cowardly cop-out.

On the bright side, Joan Allen continues to be one of this country's best actors, and she'll probably pull an Oscar nomination for this one. She brings such a stoic pride to Hanson that I'd vote for her in a second. Oldman, who has spent much of his career overacting, is subdued and natural as Runyon, and the likable Bridges is just plain goofy. How did Lurie get such talent in this picture anyway!? I figure either most actors are thrilled to sink their teeth into political issues, or this guy smooched a lot of butt while reviewing movies in L.A.

Either way, fall will arrive, you'll make your decision on the upcoming election, and hopefully, you will vote. And, if hungry for fictional politics, you should stay home and see what ol' President Bartlett is up to.



The Contender

Facts and Figures

Run time: 126 mins

In Theaters: Friday 13th October 2000

Box Office USA: $16.1M

Budget: $9M

Distributed by: Dreamworks

Production compaines: DreamWorks Pictures, Battleplan Productions

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 1.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
Fresh: 98 Rotten: 31

IMDB: 7.0 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Starring: as Sheldon Runyon, as Laine Hanson, as President Jackson Evans, as Reginald Webster, as Kermit Newman, as Jack Hathaway, as Jerry Tolliver, as Oscar Billings, as Lewis Hollis, as Paige Willomina

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