Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Contender
director/script : Rod Lurie
cinematography : Denis Maloney
editing : Michael Jablow
stars : Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater
An entertaining, if finally somewhat lightweight, White House drama in the style of TV smash The West Wing. Easygoing Democratic President Jackson Evans (Bridges) nominates a woman, Senator Laine Hanson (Allen), as his Vice-President. A confirmation committee is assembled, headed by rabid Republican Shelly Runyon (Oldman), and including an idealistic young politico, Reginald Webster (Slater). When a series of scandalous allegations emerge about Hanson’s past, Runyon sees his chance to embarrass his political foes and overturn the nomination, enabling his preferred candidate Hathaway (William Petersen) to step in. But Allen refuses to play ball — she won’t confirm or deny the rumours, nor will she stand aside without a fight
After a striking, Chappaquiddick-style opening, The Contender soon settles down into being all talk and very little action, but writer-director Lurie keeps it clicking along nicely with crisp direction, well-edited short scenes, sharp one-liners and unexpected (if somewhat cheap) twists. His control is mostly assured, apart from one rotten sequence in which Runyon rants against abortion (“A holocaust of the unborn!”) while Hanson nobly resists the temptation to expose him as a hypocrite. It’s a clumsy, predictable sequence, and even Oldman can’t help spiralling off into caricature. A rare lapse — while Allen and Bridges fully deserve their Oscar nods, Oldman is at least as good, and for a while it looks as if the script’s going to match the actors’ intelligence (Oldman is officially top-billed, and has described Runyon as the hero of the movie) and make the villain at least as admirable as the saintly good guys.
So it’s a shame the movie lets both him and us down with its limp excuse for an ending. As with 13 Days, it’s frustrating to see a director resist the flag-waving route of “God Bless America” for two full hours, only to succumb in the crucial last few minutes. It could have been a very Jackson Evans, Shelly Runyon or even a Laine Hanson kind of movie — but by blunting the edge he’s spent so long sharpening, Lurie ends up looking more like the well-meaning but sappily wide-eyed Reggie Webster.
10th April, 2001
by Neil Young