The History Place - Movie Review

The Contender

By Fred Harvey
The History Place

This is the biggest political sermon to come out of Hollywood since Reverend Warren Beatty gave us the ultra preachy Bulworth.

The Contender, written and directed by Rod Lurie, takes a somewhat sanctimonious stance against the politics of personal destruction. As we know, Bill Clinton's Hollywood buddies were aghast at the never-ending attacks on his personal conduct by Republican Congressmen during the 1998 impeachment saga. Democrats in the House frequently responded to long-winded anti-Clinton diatribes with the refrain: "The politics of personal destruction must end!"

Now, if you were to say to yourself - that sounds like a good theme for a movie. Well, this would pretty much be it. This is Hollywood's instruction to us on how to fix things in America, by adopting a live-and-let-live policy regarding the past personal lives of politicians.

Weirdly, the film begins with a Chappaquiddick-like scene in which Governor Jack Hathaway, played by William Petersen, attempts to rescue a woman inside a car that has just plunged off a narrow bridge. Unfortunately for Gov. Hathaway, even the remotest resemblance to Chappaquiddick is enough to sink his chances to become the next Vice President of the United States. The current VP died unexpectedly while in office, thus the rush is on to find a replacement.

Instead of Hathaway, President Jackson Evans, played by Jeff Bridges, chooses a woman, Senator Laine Hanson, who is well-played by Joan Allen (for whom this script was actually written). President Evans is nearing the end of his second term, so his nomination of Laine is huge, in that she would be a likely candidate for President in the coming election.

But it turns out there's a very powerful member of Congress that's been waiting for a chance to dish out some political payback to the President. Congressman Shelly Runyon, played by Gary Oldman (who executive produced the film) has decided he will devote all of his energy toward defeating Laine's nomination.

Runyon proceeds to dig up some really bad dirt on her, including nude photos allegedly taken during a wild college sex party. Laine reacts to publication of those photos on the Internet by declaring that what she did way back then is her own business and she refuses to comment on the current allegations.

Making matters worse, she must now endure a humiliating confirmation hearing in the House chaired by her new arch-enemy, Runyon. Aided by an ambitious young Congressman played by Christian Slater, Runyon attacks Laine by alternately insulting her and baiting her, hoping she will lose her cool.

This is good stuff, dramatically, the product of a well-written script. The show-down between the overbearing, manipulative Runyon and quiet, long-suffering Laine is very engaging. We really do care about this woman, even if we disagree with her political point of view - she's pro-choice, pro-gun control, and pro everything likely to annoy conservatives watching this movie.

The stoic Laine endures a firestorm of criticism until the day finally arrives when President Evans must decide whether to keep her as the nominee or dump her. The film's big ending has a few neat surprises that will maintain your interest until the final credits roll.

Fans of the American TV program The West Wing and older political movies such as Robert Redford's The Candidate will enjoy The Contender. But just hold onto your hat because you're gonna get blasted with a dose of Hollywood politics, like it or not.

Rated R for language.

The Contender - Official Website
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