TITLE OF FILM: “The Contender”
FILM YEAR: 2000
DIRECTOR: Rod Lurie
WRITER: Rod Lurie
STARRING: Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman, Christian Slater, Sam Elliott, William Peterson, Philip Baker Hall, Saul Rubinek, Robin Thomas, Kathryn Morris
“The Contender” opens with the government in a state of flux. The Vice President of the United States has died, and the vacancy has left the nation feeling anxious. President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) has the responsibility of filling that position. He has grandiose plans for his administration, and he believes that naming a new VP may be his “swan song.” His Chief of Staff (Sam Elliott) and Press Secretary (Saul Rubinek) are less gung-ho about their President’s choice but are expert placaters.
The top contenders for the VP spot are Governor Jack Hathaway (William Peterson) and Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). Representative Runyon (Gary Oldman), among others, feels strongly that Senator Hanson is the absolute wrong person for the job. And with that, begins a political power play for filling the vacant seat of the second highest ranking official in the United States government.
“The Contender” is a first-class thriller. It takes a hard look at the American political system, sexism, and moral integrity. The script by Rod Lurie, who also directed, moves swiftly along in its storytelling. There is an entourage of characters and subplots that all brilliantly converge as the story reaches its climax.
Cinematographer Denis Maloney captures some wonderfully patriotic shots of Washington D.C. From Arlington National Cemetery to the Presidential Seal in the Oval Office, the characters seem to inhabit a world bigger than themselves. Each representing merely a piece in the larger state of play.
The cast seems completely at ease in this political world. Christian Slater is believable as the young, idealist politician who slowly matures into a worthy representative of the people. Sam Elliott (Oscar nominee from 2018’s “A Star is Born”) and his horse voice are fabulous as the embattled Chief of Staff. Jeff Bridges plays the food-obsessed president with a great sense of humor and understanding. But Gary Oldman and Joan Allen run away with the film. They are worthy adversaries, and their wordy battle scenes are dripping with intensity.
CULTURAL AND THEMATIC ANALYSIS:
It has long been known that women and men are held to very different standards. Men can be promiscuous, while women are labeled slutty. Men can be strong and stern, while women have to worry about coming off bitchy. And women have the added pressure of doing it all in high heels. “The Contender” uses this sexist ideology as the foundation for its story about the men in power and the women hoping for a seat at the table.
Despite one impassioned speech that Senator Laine Hanson delivers, “The Contender” is not about individual political beliefs. That being said, the film does spend time addressing some fiercely debated topics, including that of a woman’s right to choose. However, I would hope that even though the Hanson character is Pro-Choice, the film would not be scrapped by those who are Pro-Life. The message of the film is deeper than one issue.
It is a look at the double standards that have invaded the U.S.’s (and perhaps the world’s) political process. “The Contender” is about character- the character to do the right thing when it is convenient and when it is not.
RECEPTION TO THE FILM AT THE TIME:
“The Contender” was released in 2000. This was at the height of the Bill Clinton impeachment scandal. The film addresses issues that were not far from that minds of the American people at that time. David Germain of The Associated Press wrote, “…”The Contender” has timing. This take of a vice-presidential hopeful caught up in lurid innuendo over her sex life comes as the nation prepares to move on from years of lurid innuendo under Bill Clinton.”
The Screen Actors Guild nominated Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman for awards. Allen and Bridges went on to score nominations from the Hollywood Foreign Press and the academy. The film was recognized by the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards with the Alan J. Pakula Award. This is an award that recognizes artistic excellence by illuminating issues of great social and political importance.
COMPARISONS TO ANY MOVIES OF TODAY:
Political thrillers are a great source of film entertainment. Last year’s “The Front Runner” (by no means a perfect film) from Jason Reitman, questions the importance of a politician’s private life while running for public office. The film is a true story about the three weeks leading up to Senator Gary Hart dropping out of the 1987 presidential race.
Journalists are repeatedly front and center in political stories, as they are often viewed as the fourth branch of government. Recent films, such as 2017’s “The Post” and 2011’s “The Ides of March” revolve around questionable politicians and truth-hungry journalists.
WHY IT STILL RESONATES TODAY:
From the founding of this country, there has always been contention. And there likely always will be. Contention is often the result of a difference of opinion, but differences are needed to ultimately guide a democracy towards its truth. What becomes important is electing politicians with character, so even if there are differing opinions, the voting populous never questions their motives.
“The Contender,” asks its audience to listen for the truth behind a person’s voice and rhetoric. Opinions are one thing, but the characters are more important. Character may be what saves us in the end.