|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 06 March 2001|
'The Contender' is one of the most overrated movies of recent years. It looks like it should be important and good, and it has an admittedly excellent cast, but it's contrived, predictable and, ultimately, trivial. Writer-director Rod Lurie has often said (in his former capacity as film reviewer) that he considers 'All the President's Men' to be the best movie ever made, and that he loves political films in general.
That's fine; there are many good political thrillers. But, to begin with, the crucial difference between 'The Contender' and 'All the President's Men' is that 'The Contender' is fictional. Automatically, the issues are drained of considerable power, but he hasn't found anything -- other than good acting -- to replace that missing power. We don't have to take the movie seriously, because we know it isn't true. And because he clumsily stacks the decks throughout the film -- there are obvious heroes, obvious villains -- he cannot establish any sense of reality.
Sure, movies like 'The Manchurian Candidate' and 'The Parallax View' were centered in politics, but they were also thrillers, with exciting action scenes and/or plenty of suspense. They dealt with life-and-death issues, and 'Candidate' with the possible takeover of the United States by evil mean rotten bad and nasty Chinese Commies. 'The Candidate' deals with the possible confirmation of a woman -- Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) -- as vice president.
President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) and most of his staff are eager to get her confirmed, but very conservative Senator Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) wants to block the confirmation, and is in a position to do so. His reasons for wanting to prevent Hanson from becoming vice president aren't entirely clear, but have a very large personal component. The ideological issues are beside the point going in, because whoever is the new vice president will pretty much have to walk in step with the (liberal) president.
Things get troublesome when Runyon finds a videotape that seems to show Hanson, as a college student, having sex with several men at once. To everyone's amazement, Hanson refuses to confirm or deny that the young woman in the video is her, even if this will mean she doesn't become vice president. In his highly self-congratulatory commentary track, done with Joan Allen, Lurie insists that this indicates a major ethical stand. It doesn't.
There's a subplot involving Gov. Jack Hathaway (William L. Petersen) who, in the film's well-done opening scene, tries but fails to rescue a woman from a car that went into a river near where the governor was fishing. He's in the same ideological area as the president, and is widely considered to be the most likely replacement for the late vice president. But the president wants Hanson. The movie might have worked better if this had been the central plot.
Slater ably plays junior congressman Reginald Webster, who moves uneasily between the president's and Senator Runyon's camps. He's supposed to represent us -- the character with which we most identify. But since the president and, in particular, Laine Hanson are depicted as unblemished towers of virtue, and since Runyon is so transparently a cad, a villain, a bounder and evil from his horn-rim glasses to his polished shoes, Webster ends up looking like a ninny. How could he possibly even consider siding with Runyon? Lurie believes his film is ambiguous -- but it's not.
Fortunately, he has lots of good actors to act as a kind of distraction. Joan Allen, who's always good, was nominated for an Oscar for her role here, which doesn't really stretch her as an actor, since it's primarily reactive. Despite playing an annoyingly equivocating character, Christian Slater is convincing and understated. Sam Elliott and Saul Rubinek are the president's two chief aides, but we never get much of a grip on their personalities.
Petersen and Philip Baker Hall, playing Hanson's father, aren't seen often enough, though Hall easily dominates the scene he's in. Mariel Hemingway has a good cameo as a witness against Hanson. But as the president, Jeff Bridges is hammy and unconvincing. It's one of his worst performances.
The standout performance, though, is by Gary Oldman, almost unrecognizable as the right-wing Runyon. Oldman can chew the scenery when he's a mind to -- he overacts under a ton of makeup in 'Hannibal' -- but here he adopts a subdued approach, making his character far more convincing than just the script allowed. Lurie wrote Runyon as an all-too-familiar villain (when was the last time a political film depicted a right-wing politician favorably?), but Oldman's quiet intensity (and mastery of dialect) makes Runyon uncomfortably real -- and at times, likable. He knows how things work in Washington, and he's a master manipulator; at first, we believe he is motivated by genuine ethics, and we're uncomfortable with his decision to go after Hanson. But Lurie veers off into weary melodrama, and Runyon devolves into a standard bad guy.
Oldman was also an executive producer on the film, but when it opened, he denounced the release version. 'The Contender' was made independently; DreamWorks picked it up for distribution, and made some alterations. This outraged Oldman, though Lurie defended the changes. Unless I missed it, none of this is mentioned on the DVD. But if Oldman was correct, Lurie was wrong to remove the material; the movie needed more real ambiguity.
Technically, it's adept, with excellent cinematography by Denis Maloney. The DVD is in DTS, but since this film is almost entirely dialog (and rather flat dialog most of the time), the superduper sound option is, for once, pretty much beside the point. The sound is well done, but that's to be expected today. It's just not showy here. The other extras are standard. The "making-of" documentary is downright smarmy, though, painting 'The Contender' as a work of towering, courageous genius and of monumental political importance. It's none of those things.
Lurie wasn't a very good film critic, and he's not a very good writer/director; he goes for the obvious, and fails to understand that's exactly what he's doing. He wants his movies to be intriguingly ambiguous, but as long as he chooses stories as blatantly one-sided as 'The Contender,' he's doomed to fail.