The Contender (2000)

D: Rod Lurie
S: Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges

Clever and funny political satire written and directed by Rod Lurie, clearly inspired by the scandals which surrounded the latter days of Bill Clinton's Presidency. When the vice president dies, president Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski) must choose a new one. The most obvious candidate seems to be William Petersen (Manhunter), especially following a recent, high-profile act of heroism. Bridges has other ideas however, and selects outsider Joan Allen (Pleasantville, When the Sky Falls). This doesn't sit so well with confirmation committee chairman Gary Oldman (The Fifth Element, Hannibal), an old friend of Petersen. When allegations of sexual impropriety in her youth are suddenly made public, Allen must face the challenges which dogged Clinton, raising moral and ethical questions about the nature of the relationship between a candidate's personal life and their right to participate at the highest levels of American democracy.

The Contender is a terrific little movie; tightly constructed, well acted, usually right on target and generally thought-provoking. It excels in detailing the wrangling, back-room in-fighting, and often unspoken or understated conflicts and understandings which motivate the majority of political machinations. Without making overt political statements (Bulworth) or exaggerating the personal element (Primary Colors), the film combines astute analysis and solid characterisation in a script which is also funny, a rare and very effective combination. It is also superbly acted, drawing subtle but powerful turns from Allen, Bridges, and Oldman, and a lovely supporting bit from Sam Elliot (sans moustache) as a presidential aide. Christian Slater is not bad as an ambitious young politician who comes to occupy a relatively prominent role in the unfolding drama.

The film only drops the ball in the final minutes with an unlikely resolution which flies in the face of the depth of casual nastiness which has informed most of the action to that point. As Bridges addresses congress to defend his choice of vice president in spite of the allegations, Oldman's character symbolically gets up and leaves the room. It is almost like a signal from the actor that something unfortunate is about to happen to the movie in which the executive producer wants no part. Cue a happy ending which though well handled simply isn't believable and leaves you with a sour aftertaste. Ah well.

This doesn't stop the film from being well worth watching. Its sense of the flaws in American politics is refreshingly balanced: skeptical without being cynical, knowing without being smarmy. It is also readable in terms of real-world events but not clumsily tied in with them to the extent that it doesn't have its own story to tell. From a technical standpoint, it is snappily edited by Michael Jablow, nicely photographed by Denis Maloney with a good balance of intimacy and the inevitable coldness which comes with shooting Washington landmarks, and generally has the look and feel of a well crafted bit of filmmaking. It is not quite mainstream, but not entirely indie in style either. It is most likely to appeal to a specialised audience though, lacking the simpler pleasures of more conventional entertainments.

It is a much better film than Wag the Dog, easier to watch than Bulworth, and less distended than Primary Colors. It's not as much broad fun as Election, so don't expect quasi-indie yuks along the same lines. Whether its political insight will stand to it in the long run is another question. It is certainly the first notable American political satire of the twenty-first century. It encapsulates the Clinton debates in a neat package, even if it does muddy the water by switch the gender of the central figure (thus raising an entirely different set of questions on top of the basic ethical/moral ones). Only time will tell if this turns out to be a touchstone film of the era, but it is certainly a front runner (so to speak).

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.