Thursday, January 27, 2011

2001 Oscar Nominee "The Contender" Contends Until the End

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 5 (of 2003) by Leroy Douresseaux

The Contender (2000)
Running time: 126 minutes (2 hours, 6 minutes)
MPAA – R for strong sexual content and language
PRODUCERS: Willi Baer, Marc Frydman, James Spies, and Douglas Urbanski
EDITOR: Michael Jablow
Academy Award nominee


Starring: Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, Sam Elliot, William L. Petersen, Saul Rubinek, Philip Baker Hall, Mike Binder, Robin Thomas, Kathryn Morris, and Mariel Hemingway

After the Vice President of the United States dies, President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) selects Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen, Pleasantville), a Democrat who switched parties, as his nominee to replace the deceased VP. During the confirmation hearings before Congress, a combative rival, Rep. Sheldon “Shelly” Runyon (Gary Oldman) begins leaking lurid stories about Sen. Hanson’s wild past as a sexually promiscuous college student.

Runyon prefers a popular governor, Jack Hathaway (William L. Peterson, TV’s “C. S. I.: Crime Scene Investigation”), as the new VP instead of Sen. Hanson. With an eager young congressman, Rep. Reginald Webster (Christian Slater), at his beck and call, Runyon turns the hearings into his bully pulpit. As Sen. Hanson struggles with the decision to defend herself and answer the horrid charges, investigations into her past by rival interests unearth a mound of increasingly sensational stories.

The Contender could have been a boring Capitol Hill whodunit, but it saves the boring for the end. For most of its length, the film is actually a bracing thriller that gives a fly on the wall view of how nasty and petty our nation’s leaders can be. Writer/director Rod Lurie creates a fascinating, edge of your seat thriller that burns slowly and then explodes with each new shocking revelation. You can hardly take your eyes from the screen, but the film loses its bite, as it gets closer to the end.

It is as if all the air just blows out of the film. Luckily, the cast is game, and they save the film’s ending. When The Contender gets too preachy, it’s blessed to have good actors who can make even talking heads interesting. Joan Allen is what she always is – good. Her strange, subtle beauty gives her a look that makes you sympathetic to her; of course, she has much experience playing the put upon woman in such films as Nixon and The Crucible. Bridges is well liked and respected amongst his peers because he’s a craftsman and an artist. He pulls a trick on the viewer. For most of this film, you can think of President Jackson as a phony, but he sneaks in a broader view of the character that can have you shaking your head. Clearly, President Jackson is not what he seems to be and more than what he seems to be. Gary Oldman is good, even in this unsexy role for an actor who transformed many of the characters he played into sexy, charming rogues. He’s nothing but convincing as the low rent, thuggish nerd, Rep. Runyon.

If for nothing else, a political thriller with a cast of very good actors is worth watching, and The Contender is occasionally quite exciting, even if it limps to the ending.

5 of 10

2001 Academy Awards: 2 nominations: “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” (Jeff Bridges) and “Best Actress in a Leading Role” (Joan Allen)

2001 Golden Globes: “Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture” (Jeff Bridges) and “Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama” (Joan Allen)

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