The Contender

“For our daughters” -(the film’s dedication)

“That’s [Senator Laine] Hanson getting gang-banged” -some investigator dude in the movie….

In Rod Lurie’s The Contender everyon has got a secret and the two political parties have turned Washington, D.C. into a scandal-starved arena bristling with echoes and shadows (especially of Chappaquidick and Lewinsky). Who gets uncovered next?

And who dares to uphold principle when the brassbound, legacy-lusting President, Jackson Evans (a prime, pugnacious Jeff Bridges), tries to make a sort of politically correct swan song by selecting a female replacement for his Veep, who died suddenly?

Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), a model of ethical behavior but not so prim in her wild, buck-naked sorority days, is chosen as the contender for the position.

So ensues a lot of hardball mudslinging by smear-happy Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman, a kinetic knockout). To avenge his conservative Republican stance, Runyon leaks Hanson’s lurid past to the tabloids. Initially he dislikes her for having switched parties. Now he seems to despise Hanson for being a woman.

But it is soon apparent that, amid the juicy backstabbing of backstage politics, our lily-fair contender is just a pawn (an edgy one) plighted against broad cabalistic crookedness; from President Evan’s blunt aides, all the way down to Christian Slater’s sly freshman Democrat wanting a seat on Runyon’s committee.

Lurie draws his Clinton parallel speciously, with martyr-or-not Hanson refusing to confirm or deny her past peccadilloes. “Is her sex life anyone else’s business, or can she be judged for her current civility?” the movie asks. Here Lurie claims that sex is the very reason for political persecution.

Lurie’s type of slick-palmed bait is nothing if not blatantly derived. Nor would such Oliver Stone/Michael Mann-ish cop, in its grainy, verite’-like style and subject matter, be ultimately unsatisfying had the docudrama’s willful controversy shown less florid-then-starkly-casual pundit-speak; and had it not sold out to prostrate bipartisanship at the end. Lurie, though, with just enough savvy, proves to be a keen partaker and observer of the cynicism towards politics in general.

The Contender is a message movie: Can someone who is moral, with a proven record of honesty, survive a sowing-wild-oats, permissive past in the current political climate?

The filmmaker’s premise seems to be that great statesmanship cannot arise without the test of overwhelming adversity. Yet he lards his own ‘principles’ with plenty of (shown or otherwise mentioned) *expletives deleted*!

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