'The Contender' movie: Exceptional Joan Allen in intriguing but ultimately wimpy political drama
“Principles only mean anything when we stick by them when they're inconvenient,” says Senator Laine Hanson, played by Joan Allen in Rod Lurie's The Contender. Senator Hanson should know.
In Lurie's political drama, the poor Democratic senator is grilled by a Republican inquisitor with a bad hairdo (Gary Oldman) 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 making public the senator's alleged participation in an orgy during her college days.*
Now, why such hatred? Well, the Republican watchdog is certain that the U.S. president (Jeff Bridges) has chosen Sen. Hanson because of her gender instead of her qualifications for the job. Adding insult to injury, the Democrat Hanson used to be a Republican.
Washington political circus
All of the above form the basis for the drama that ensues – and The Contender offers a whole lot of drama, involving, among other issues, sex, betrayal, adultery, manslaughter, and the availability of shark sandwiches. (See The Contender movie synopsis further below.)
This political circus is fun to watch because of its melodramatic excesses – Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and Katharine Hepburn could each have played Sen. Hanson (minus the orgy bit) back in the '40s. But not once does director-writer (and former film critic) Rod Lurie make a convincing case that his story bears any resemblance to reality.
First and foremost, Hanson is everything her foes say she isn't: an experienced politician and an intelligent woman of solid principles. Therefore, the initial rationale that propels her enemies to look for dirt on her seems patently absurd. And so does everything that follows.
Sen. Hanson, in fact, is such an eloquent and damn perfect paragon of virtue that her political views become nearly irrelevant. You may not agree with her religious beliefs (as an atheist, she has none) or with her choice of underwear, but orgy or no orgy, Hanson is portrayed as someone much too good for such a lowly position as U.S. V.P.
The reason this overabundance of Honor and Bravery doesn't get nauseating is a simple one: Joan Allen's masterfully restrained performance. Allen – in a role literally tailor-made for her – comes across as strong and determined, but never self-righteously so. And she doesn't display an iota of self-pity during the grueling proceedings.†
Almost single-handedly, her presence in The Contender prevented me from either cringing or laughing while watching the myriad absurd and contradictory situations concocted by Lurie – not the least of which is an atheist nominee for vice president of the obsessively religious United States.
Other key performers are less effective, as Gary Oldman comes up with an old-fashioned, venom-spitting Saturday matinée villain, while Jeff Bridges (instead of original choice Paul Newman) shamelessly hams it up as the shark-sandwich-gobbling prez.
'Weak-kneed' politics, amusing drama
As a political drama-cum-thriller, The Contender is simplistic, silly, and, unlike its steely heroine, weak-kneed. Really, did we need to learn about the young Laine Hanson's “purity”?
But as a star vehicle with more twists and turns than all daytime soaps put together, you'll have a tough time finding something more amusing.
Note: When it comes to The Contender's twists and turns, that should include the outlandish behind-the-scenes controversy about the final edit of the film and director-screenwriter Rod Lurie's political affiliations. See further below.
† Rod Lurie has stated that he wrote The Contender with Joan Allen in mind.
The Contender (2000).
Dir. / Scr.: Rod Lurie.
Cast: Joan Allen. Jeff Bridges. Gary Oldman. Christian Slater. Sam Elliott. William Petersen. Saul Rubinek. Philip Baker Hall. Robin Thomas Grossman (as Robin Thomas). Mike Binder. Mariel Hemingway. Kathryn Morris. Kristen Shaw. Joseph Lyle Taylor (as Joe Taylor). Douglas Urbanski. Angelica Page (as Angelica Tom). Sean Pratt. Cameo: Larry King as himself.
'The Contender' movie synopsis
Following the death of the vice president of the United States, President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) must choose a new second-in-command. His top two picks are Virginia governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), who has just enjoyed a surge in popularity after his (failed) attempt to save a woman whose car had plunged into a river, and Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), a former Republican who switched party affiliations after her fellow Republicans veered too far to the Religious Right.
President Evans opts for Hanson, a decision that is not well received by either side of the political fence.
A ruthless Republican senator, Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), takes personal offence with Hanson's nomination – partly because he sees it as a sort of affirmative action appointment, partly because Hanson used to be a Republican.
Runyon will stop at nothing to ruin Hanson's chances to become vice president, even resorting to playing up her alleged participation in an orgy during her days in college. The scandal, Runyon hopes, will prevent the U.S. Congress from ever confirming the nomination.
Sen. Hanson, for her part, remains mum about her personal past, asserting that her private life and her public life are two different spheres that should be kept apart.
'The Contender' movie trivia
Below are a few bits of trivia about The Contender.
- William Petersen was to have played Sen. Laine Hanson's husband, a role that went to Robin Thomas Grossman (billed as Robin Thomas). Instead, Petersen was cast as Virginia governor Jack Hathaway.
- Jeff Bridges would only sign for the role of President Jackson Evans after Joan Allen had officially become the film's Contender.
- Johnny Cash's song “Ring of Fire,” which is played during the film's opening credits, is sung by Jeff Bridges and Kim Carnes.
- The deleted scenes are a welcome addition to the DVD of The Contender. A couple of them in particular – Sen. Hanson showing some cleavage and refusing to button up; the FBI agent (Kathryn Morris) talking to Gov. Jack Hathaway's wife (Kristen Shaw) – are quite good and should have made the final cut.
- Surprisingly, The Contender DVD's making-of featurette, “The Making of a Political Thriller,” is also quite entertaining and informative. Instead of the dull and phony infomercials that plague so many DVD releases, this particular behind-the-scenes documentary actually offers some relevant information about the making of the film and an overview of previous American political thrillers. Curiously, Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July, Nixon, JFK) is not mentioned in the featurette.
- The audio commentary by Rod Lurie is quite interesting, as the writer-director discusses his views on the role of women in politics and his own liberal worldview.
- And finally, Rod Lurie has said that his favorite American film is Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men. The Oscar-nominated 1976 classic features the following: Robert Redford (as Bob Woodward). Dustin Hoffman (as Carl Bernstein). Jason Robards (as The Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee). Jack Warden. Martin Balsam. Hal Holbrook. Meredith Baxter. Stephen Collins. Jane Alexander.
'The Contender' controversy: Producer Douglas Urbanski vs. Rod Lurie and DreamWorks
According to Premiere magazine, The Contender's co-star and executive producer Gary Oldman and producer Douglas Urbanski – who also happened to be Oldman's manager and a bit player in the film – were unhappy that DreamWorks reedited The Contender after the Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg, and David Geffen studio bought the film for distribution.
“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 was quoted as saying, “because his benefactors are Katzenberg, Spielberg, and Geffen.”
Urbanski added that the release cut of The Contender, which came out shortly before the 2000 presidential election, was “almost a Goebbels-like piece of propaganda.”
Later on, Douglas Urbanski claimed that the Goebbels quote was printed out of context, and denied that The Contender was cut against his or Gary Oldman's will.
- Gary Oldman is “the least political person I know.”
- Neither he nor Oldman made the statements attributed to them in media reports.
- He and Oldman 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 by the right-wing tabloid / news aggregator Drudge Report, which, ironically, plays a key role (with a different name) in getting the plot of The Contender in motion.
“Neither Mr. Showbiz nor Drudge ever called to check a thing,” Urbanski told Ebert.
On the DVD of The Contender, Rod Lurie dismisses the issue as overblown gossip.
More on Douglas Urbanski at mediamatters.org.
The Contender movie cast info via the IMDb.
Douglas Urbanski Premiere quotes via Damien Bona's Inside Oscar 2.
Images of Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman, and Joan Allen in The Contender: DreamWorks.