The Contender is, at its heart, a movie about conflict, both internal and outside the self. Within the film, battle wages between the moral and the immoral, men and women, liberals and conservatives. So, in a sense, it only seems fitting The Contender is a movie that ultimately feels at war with itself. Unsure whether it wants to be a political thriller or a courtroom drama, a slam on pop-politics or an endorsement of politicians as cartoons, a mock of doing what’s right or a lesson in how to do so, The Contender in the end ends up being a good film unconvinced enough in itself to make it finally mediocre.
From its start, The Contender is a rigorous film, full of grand themes and copious amounts of talking. Setting out to follow what happens when an incumbent Vice President suddenly dies and another must be swiftly elected to take his place, the movie throws spice in the mix by having the contender for the position be a woman. Joan Allen–an exquisitely under-recognized talent who has traditionally played more repressed-female roles–is Senator Laine Hanson, the Republican-turned-Democrat daughter of a conservative ex-Governor, and the possible VP to be. The movie starts, though, with her contender for the position, Senator Jack Hathaway–played aptly by William Peterson–out fishing on a river in a boat with a reporter conducting an interview. From the blue sky, a car comes rocketing down from the overhanging bridge into the water before them, and the Senator is sent overboard in an attempt to rescue the woman driver.
Ultimately, this unusual act of political heroics ironically works against Hathaway as President Jackson Evans, hilariously cast in Jeff Bridges, reconsiders Hathaway as a possible V.P. replacement. Hathaway’s recent debacle, it is cursorily decided, is too “Chappaquidick,” and therefore potentially capable of harming the nomination the President wants to make his last great hurrah before checking out of office. Laine, it’s decided, is a better nominee–plus he earns token-bonus points by her being a woman–and so, it is she who goes forth into a Clarence Thomas-esque courtroom grilling at the hands of a committee more interested in getting Hathaway back in the running than Laine elected. Laine, to everyone involved, symbolizes the liberal effect on contemporary American culture–from political correctness, to feminism, to affirmative-action–and as such engenders fear in those endowed with appointing her.
While the movie’s first half moves fast and furious, wanting to garner something akin to the speedy spin of The War Room but lusting to be as smart-a*s as Wag the Dog, things begin to get hackneyed, though, once we hit the courtroom. The McCarthy-esque Republican Congressman Shelly Runyon, played in yet another transformation by Gary Oldman, begins to riffle through Laine’s past to dig up the dirt, and what does he find? Lo’ and behold, photos from a youthful Laine gangbang! Clinton never gave this good. (“I know it’s hard to tell with her face in someone’s crotch,” goes one line, “but that’s her, man.”) The Contender here shifts from critiquing politics to being caught up in the drama, while everyone involved ponders their part in it within a morality play. Runyon-sidekick Reginald Webster (Christian Slater) isn’t sure whether to run with the crowd or stop the exploitation. The President isn’t sure if he should stick with the chick or go back to another-white-guy Hathaway. And Laine sits stone-faced and mute the whole time–refusing to say if she was involved and leaving the audience undecided as to who the good guy is after all.
It’s hard not to want to cheer for a movie that includes lines of dialogue like, “When she came out, she was covered in cum.” Certainly, the sexual politics of The Contender don’t simply parallel modern political hijinks, but make Clinton, Monica, and their shared cigar look tame in comparison. Yet while Writer/Director Rod Lurie may prove only an ex-film critic turned filmmaker would put lines like that in a movie like this, it’s too bad the framework on which is hung such a provocative mix of sex-and-politics is so cliched. “It’s simply beneath my dignity,” we are informed by Laine regarding her involvement in the so-called sexual depravity plot. For many of us these days, though, it’s not beneath our dignity–that’s exactly where we want to go.
Unluckily, the final answer for Lurie in The Contender is so chock full of polemics in virtue and honor and truth and hope, that it makes the complex conflicts of reality into ignored step-children. The one trick-pony Lurie pops out at the end doesn’t do much to explode the heavy-handed and moralistic rhetoric he has heaped up around it, and it’s really too bad because there is much here to like. There’s something truly refreshing in the relentlessness of Lurie’s anti-action movies (he also created the similarly political Deterrence), wherein people stand in rooms, sit in cars, talking and talking all the while. Individual performances go from good to great, with good including Slater and Sam Elliott as a presidential advisor. Oldman and Allen are great, especially cast as characters who become more like caricatures by the film’s end. And the camera itself occasionally rears itself up as an aggressive character as well, most interestingly in a shot involving a paparazzi-like pursuit down a double-staircase.
“Who are we if we are not what we believe?”, The Contender asks, near its close. Indeed, it seems The Contender, and quite possibly Lurie, cannot quite decided whether to be for or against the virtuous, the establishment, or Hollywood itself for that matter. The Contender, by its close, is so busy trying to be everything, it has a hard time being something.