BY ROB BRICKEN
In this off-season, while politics are keeping such a low profile in the American consciousness, it sure is gutsy of The Contender to open this season. This tale of the nomination of a female vice president might be a stern warning about the dangerously intrusive conservatism in Washington nowadays, or a message that maybe America is ready for a chick in the White House.
While The Contender may or may not succeed in having a message, it sure isn’t a very good movie.
Here’s the scoop: the former veep is dead. Prez Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) picks woman-y female Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) over some more digestible old white guy. Evil Senator Shelly Runyan (Gary Oldman) opposes her and is running the committee that will oversee her confirmation hearing. A lovely story of political intrigue and maneuvering complicated by the fact that Senator Hanson was frisky in college, and Runyan finds out. Like super-frisky. Like, Hustler-level frisky… And that’s pretty frisky.
Hanson refuses to say anything, because it’s her personal life.
So the movie begins with the scandal emerging, the committee meetings, loads of character interaction and nothing worth recalling. The plot stretches and bucks in some points, but weighted by a few great performances (notably Joan Allen and especially Oldman) it chugs unevenly along until just before the end, where the film totally whores out its respectability, in much the same manner Allen’s character is alleged to have done.
Many people, having seen a moving picture before, will figure out the film’s ‘surprise’ plot points hours before the film trots ’em out for the big finale.
Meanwhile, closing speeches by Hanson and President Evans pour the most heart-felt saccharine, politically unlikely speeches to be heard-this is in contrast to Runyan’s committee hearing, which sounds exactly like C-SPAN.
Director Rod Lurie (Deterrence) tries to make things a little interesting by portraying Oldman’s character as a man of conviction as well, but this is ultimately destroyed by the film’s desire to fit in a good vs. evil battle. When the movie has Runyan’s wife helping Hanson’s side because she disapproves of his actions, it’s just another mind-boggling blow against realism to help polarize a movie which would have benefitted far more from ambiguity.
And here’s the crux – while many scenes seem to have an intriguing realistic feel in character interactions – such as how a man who is the president might genuinely act behind the mantle of power – the film’s enslavement to a textbook drama means the film is peppered with ludicrous plot points, unbelievable actions, and a highly uninspired ending/sermon.
If real politicians acted like folks do in The Contender, they would never get elected in the first place.
All the politicians could scarcely be any less politically savvy. And in a movie grounded on politicians and political intrigue, it must seem real, or else the movie fails.
Which it does; did someone call for a veto?