The Contender


Directed by: Rod Lurie
Written by:Rod Lurie
Starring: Gary Oldman, Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, Sam Elliott, William Petersen, Philip Baker Hall
Released: March 22, 2001
Grade: A

The Vice-President of the United States died three weeks ago and President Jackson Evans (Bridges) is being pressured by his party and the public to appoint a successor.  With record approval ratings after a great PR display, the hot favourite is Governor Jack Hathaway.  Whilst fishing with a writer for the Washington Post, a car plunged off a bridge and Governor Hathaway attempted a daring underwater rescue.  Whilst not successful, it created a whirlwind of media attention and showed the public that he takes chances when he has to.

Despite this, President Evans is going against trend and plans to appoint Senator Laine Hanson (Allen) as his swansong late in his final term.  He wants to prove that a woman can serve at the highest level of the American government.  Under American law, it's not a simple matter when nominating and appointing a new vice-president.  The Constitution requires that he or she be confirmed by a special committee which is representative of both Republicans and Democrats.

Shelly Runyon (Oldman) is head of the committee and has no plans of confirming Hanson.  He believes the best "man" for the job is Hathaway and is not going to appoint a woman just because she is a woman.  The only way to stop her will be to bring her down and with his advisors, Runyon digs and uncovers a juicy past.  Photos supported by eyewitnesses show Hanson performing sexual favours at a sorority party in college.  Her clean image is about to be destroyed.

I love a good political thriller and The Contender is up there with the best.  Despite the fact we like to hate and criticise politicians, we still hold them in high regard.  When you stick a microphone in front of them and hear them speak, it's newsworthy and we pay attention.  This is a strong point made in The Contender.  Given the level of power they hold, people crave for such lofty positions and will do anything to get there.  Is it the best person who gets the job or is it just the most ambitious?

The film also raises important issues regarding women in politics.  How long will it be until a woman leads the United States of America?  Sure women hold more seats in the Senate than ever before but they always have and perhaps always will, take a back seat when it comes to the top positions.

Aside from the topical interest I had in the film, it makes great viewing from an entertainment perspective.  Writer-director Rod Lurie has done a superlative job and the cinematography and set decoration give the film a fast-paced realism.  Joan Allen is one of my favourite actresses and shows her talent with the difficult role (which has earned her an Oscar nomination) and Jeff Bridges (also nominated) is strong as the President.  Most striking was Gary Oldman, surprisingly overlooked at this year's Academy Awards.  It's about time Oldman took on more demanding roles having seen him in recent action junk (Lost In Space, Air Force One and The Fifth Element).

Whilst it may not be everyone's forte,  The Contender proves that intelligent movies appeal to an intelligent audience.  They’re rare in today's cinematic environment and the reason is simple - they just don't make enough money (this film only made $18m in America).  I guess we just have to savour them while they're showing.