- The Contender (2000) movie review: An outstanding central performance – Joan Allen as the title character – and a script filled with as many intrigues as JFK make Rod Lurie’s political soap opera well worth one’s time, regardless of political persuasion.
- The Contender was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Actress (Joan Allen) and Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges).
The Contender movie review: Exceptional Joan Allen in engrossing but populist & utterly absurd political drama
“Principles only mean anything when we stick by them when they’re inconvenient,” says U.S. Senator Laine Hanson, the titular character played by Joan Allen in screenwriter-director Rod Lurie’s undeniably engrossing, proudly populist, and patently absurd political drama The Contender.
Sen. Hanson should know.
Throughout the movie, the Democratic nominee is grilled by Sheldon (a.k.a. Shelly) Runyon (Gary Oldman), a Republican inquisitor who wants to prevent at all costs her being confirmed as the next vice president of the United States. Even if that means destroying Hanson’s political career by divulging the senator’s alleged participation in an orgy during her college days.
Now, why such hatred?
Well, Runyon is certain that U.S. President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) has chosen Sen. Hanson to replace his recently deceased VP because of her gender – as opposed to her qualifications for the job.
Adding insult to what he sees as an injurious affirmative action appointment, Hanson used to be a Republican who switched affiliations after her party veered too far to the Religious Right.
True, Runyon isn’t the only politician who thinks Hanson is a less-than-ideal pick. Some Democrats would rather have Virginia governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), who has enjoyed a surge in popularity after his (failed) attempt to rescue a woman whose car had plunged into a lake.
Sen. Hanson, for her part, remains mum about her personal past, asserting, as a matter of principle, that her private life and her public life are two different spheres that should be kept apart.
Washington political circus
The fight for/against Hanson’s nomination for the vice presidency of the United States forms the basis for the drama that ensues. And The Contender offers a whole lot of drama, involving – in addition to the orgy bit – sexism, betrayal, adultery, manslaughter, and the availability of shark sandwiches.
This political circus is fun to watch because of its melodramatic excesses. In fact, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, or Katharine Hepburn could easily have played Sen. Hanson (minus the Production Code-unfriendly orgy) back in the 1940s, with Kirk Douglas or Victor Jory chewing the scenery as Inquisitor Runyon.
One important shortcoming to Rod Lurie’s approach: Not once does the former film critic turned filmmaker make a convincing case that his tale bears much resemblance to reality.
Masterful actress makes virtuous politician palatable
First and foremost, Hanson is everything her foes say she isn’t – i.e., she’s an experienced politician and an intelligent individual of rock-solid principles. Thus, the rationale that propels the naysayers to look for dirt on her is preposterous. And so is most everything that follows.
Indeed, Hanson is such an eloquent and damn perfect paragon of steely virtue that her political views become almost irrelevant. You may not agree with her religious beliefs (as an atheist, she has none) or with her decision not to camouflage her cleavage (seen in one outtake on The Contender DVD), but orgy or no orgy, Hanson is portrayed as someone much too gifted for such a lowly position as U.S. VP.
The reason this overabundance of Honor and Fortitude doesn’t get nauseating is a simple one: Joan Allen’s masterfully restrained performance, which, had there been any awards season justice, would have earned her that year’s Best Actress Academy Award.
In a role (literally) tailor-made for her, Allen’s VP contender comes across as strong and determined, but never self-righteously so. Moreover, she doesn’t display an iota of self-pity during the grueling proceedings.
Her presence alone should prevent viewers from either cringing or laughing at the myriad outlandish and/or contradictory situations Lurie concocted for his movie – not the least of which is an atheist nominee for vice president of the obsessively religious United States.
Weak-kneed politics but amusing drama
The Contender’s other key performers are less effective, with Gary Oldman coming up with a venom-spitting Saturday matinée villain – bad hairdo and all – while Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Jeff Bridges (instead of original choice Paul Newman) hams it up as the shark-sandwich-gobbling White House resident.
In all, as a political drama-cum-thriller, The Contender is simplistic, silly, and, unlike its resolute heroine, weak-kneed. Really, did we need to learn the truth about young Laine Hanson’s alleged orgy? (No points for those who guess whether or not she actually took part in the fun.)
On the other hand, as a star vehicle grounded on a fantastic lead performance while presenting more twists and turns than all daytime soaps put together, you’ll have a tough time finding more diverting entertainment.
The Contender (2000)
Direction & Screenplay: Rod Lurie.
Cast: Joan Allen. Jeff Bridges. Gary Oldman. Christian Slater. Sam Elliott. William Petersen. Saul Rubinek. Philip Baker Hall. Robin Thomas Grossman. Mike Binder. Mariel Hemingway. Kathryn Morris. Kristen Shaw.
“The Contender Movie (2000) Review” notes
 Otto Preminger’s Advise & Consent (1962) and Franklin J. Schaffner’s The Best Man (1964) are two political dramas in which evildoers use politicians’ past sexual activities – in both instances, gay sex/relationships – as a blackmailing tool.
Adapted by Wendell Mayes from Allen Drury’s novel, the former features Utah Senator Don Murray as the victim. Adapted by Gore Vidal from his own play, the latter features senator and presidential contender Cliff Robertson as the victim.
Mike Nichols’ Primary Colors (1998) is another American political drama revolving around a potential sex-related scandal as a means to destroy a politician’s career. At its center is Democratic presidential contender John Travolta and an alleged “black baby.”
Written by Elaine May, Primary Colors is based on Joe Klein’s (initially published anonymously) novel inspired by then president Bill Clinton’s campaign six years earlier.
It should be noted that a sex act directly brings down at least one big-screen U.S. president: Polly Bergen in Curtis Bernhardt’s Kisses for My President (1964). The issue here isn’t a scandal; the president becomes pregnant and resigns before the final fadeout.
The Contender’s behind-the-scenes controversy
According to Premiere magazine, The Contender co-star and executive producer Gary Oldman and co-producer Douglas Urbanski – who also happened to be Oldman’s manager and a bit player in the political drama – were unhappy that distributor DreamWorks had re-edited the movie.
“Rod Lurie has transformed from being an ultra-right-wing conservative in one year to saying that he has always been a liberal Democrat,” the Republican Urbanski (more at Media Matters for America) was quoted as saying, “because his benefactors are [DreamWorks founders Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg, and David Geffen].”
‘Goebbels-like piece of propaganda’
Urbanski also affirmed that the release cut of The Contender, which came out shortly before the 2000 U.S. presidential election, was “almost a Goebbels-like piece of propaganda.”
Later on, the producer claimed that the Goebbels quote was printed out of context and denied that The Contender had been cut against his or Gary Oldman’s will.
- Gary Oldman is “the least political person I know.”
- He and Oldman had not made the statements attributed to them in media reports.
- “We produced … every last cut and frame” of The Contender.
- DreamWorks “did not influence the final cut or have anything to do with it.”
Urbanski added that the Premiere article, which featured several “mildly out of context” paragraphs, was “summarized on the Mr. ShowBiz website, where it was summarized to be wildly out of context.”
That particular article was then linked to by the right-wing tabloid/news aggregator Drudge Report – which, curiously, plays a key role (with a different name) in setting the plot of The Contender in motion.
“Neither Mr. Showbiz nor Drudge ever called to check a thing,” Urbanski told Ebert.
Trimming the fat
On The Contender DVD, Rod Lurie dismisses the issue as overblown gossip. In an October 2000 letter to the Los Angeles Times, he wrote:
“Neither DreamWorks nor anybody at DreamWorks ever instructed or even suggested to me that I recut the film to give it a liberal bent. …
“After the deal was made with the studio, I had a long conversation with Steven Spielberg, one of the owners of the studio. I told him that I thought the movie was still a little fat and that I wanted to edit out about five to 10 minutes. He told me he thought the film played very well as it was but that, if I wanted to recut the film, I would have the full support of DreamWorks.”
“… Absolutely every decision we made had to do with pace, story and emotional verve. Simply put, I wanted to make The Contender a better and more efficient thriller.”
“The Contender Movie” endnotes
Rod Lurie discusses All the President’s Men in a Rotten Tomatoes interview.
Douglas Urbanski Premiere quote via Damien Bona’s Inside Oscar 2.
Jeff Bridges and Joan Allen The Contender movie images: DreamWorks.
“The Contender Movie (2000): Superlative Allen & Populist Politics” last updated in September 2021.