Recall the weeks surrounding the 2000 U.S. election. Desperate days that confirmed a nation’s deepening cynicism toward processes political and judicial. The days before and after a botched ballot count that, even in its infancy, suggested an indecision, a void of leadership, later affirmed by the Presidency it spawned. The very public genesis of an uncompromising civil dialogue that has since come to define a generation of American politics, growing increasingly coarse by the day.
Rod Lurie’s “The Contender” arrived in theatres on October 13, 2000 a story of its time. It channels the era’s swollen egos and unswerving agendas with the sort of canny precision found in the great American political thrillers. Reminding us, all the while, that each new Washington machine isn’t so different from the old ones that came before. A decade on, it’s curious how clear our future-now was even then.
The executive branch in “The Contender” emerges from the red-faced Clinton years short one member. The Vice President is dead. And POTUS is a lame duck with no legacy. Jeff Bridges portrays him as plain-talking everyman, appearing to rely exclusively on theatre, instinct and the advice of his aids. The lunch menu takes priority over policy discussion. But he’s savvy, too. Staring into the great portraits of his predecessors, he knows his terms don’t measure up. The time to be bold is nigh. The new number two must be loyal, polished and prepared to serve as the office’s “superfluous Excellency,” yes. She must also be a woman.
Enter Laine Hanson, the junior Senator from Ohio. She is promising but unaccomplished. And perhaps unvetted. The sharks recognize her type on sight. Hanson here is embodied by Joan Allen, a fine actress who may be also her generation’s greatest chameleon. Who else could revolutionize Pleasantville through sheer vulnerability; convincingly pursue Jason Bourne across continents; so achingly endure the impossible accusations of The Crucible.
All provide useful training for the myriad demands facing her in this complex, shifting role. She beams receiving Bridges’ endorsement. She stands firm under fire. She withholds information even when it may exonerate her. Are her motivations principled or self-preservatory? In these fields there are wolves many. And they attack as fiercely from within Hanson’s ranks as across the aisle. Allen’s refusal to yield is fascinating. Following so soon after her devastating portrayal of Pat Nixon further adds to its intrigue.
Two things carry the film: the impossibly taut congressional hearings and the casting. Allen is impeccable. Gary Oldman possesses a special kind of venom as the reptilian neo-McCarthy head of Hanson’s confirmation. He is snivelling and detestable and yet we feel empathy for the hard consequences of his obsessions. No small feat.
Bridges taps the charisma in his bloodlines. Separating Sam Elliott from his moustache makes him all the more intimidating. Mariel Hemingway and Phillip Baker Hall have two scenes between them, both unforgettable. And how fun it is to watch Oldman, Saul Rubinek and Christian Slater share a room all these years after “True Romance.” But, oh, Slater is out of his depth.
Age has produced in “The Contender” a few wrinkles. Lurie builds the stakes high only to settle for easy answers. Absent here is the hard-boiled execution of “All The President’s Men.” And the swollen strings of the soundtrack produce an emotional hyperbole that further undermines what’s already an overblown climax.
Perhaps that makes “The Contender” a more effective snapshot than mirror. But its tone endures, still ringing out ten years on.
Laine Hanson – Joan Allen
President Jackson Evans – Jeff Bridges
Shelly Runyon – Gary Oldman
Reginald Webster – Christan Slater
Kermit Newman – Sam Elliott
Jack Hathaway – William Petersen
Written and Directed by Rod Lurie.
Running Time: 130 Minutes.