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The Contender

Starring Gary Oldman, Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, and Sam Elliot
Written and Directed by Rod Lurie

IN SHORT: Truly one of the best we've seen all year. Except for the ending. [Rated R for strong sexual content and language. 126 minutes]

Writer Rod Lurie said he wanted to make a star vehicle for actress Joan Allen and he has kept his word. But you can't build a monster-big picture without a solid story, deep background-ed characters and star level performances from even the smallest parts. Director Lurie has done that, too. We noted when we saw the ex-film critic's first film, Deterrence, that his writing skills were fine and his directing skills needed work. Having seen the sophomore effort, The Contender, wow, what an improvement!

Allen stars as Senator Laine Hanson (D-OH), whose principles guide her and make her strong. They also put her in a situation where her personal, political and professional life are about to be gutted like a fish. Her political detractors use somewhat harsher language. The Senator has been nominated to fill an empty Vice President's chair, to the surprise of many in DC, who had expected the Governor of Virginia, Jack Hathaway (William Petersen) to get the nod. Not only are Hathaway's politics acceptable at the national level, the man has shown that his moral fiber and devotion to the common people are unmatched among his peers. He's riding a crest of popularity based on events that take up the first scene of the movie and is popular enough that freshman congressmen like Delaware's Reginald Webster (Christian Slater) are willing to cross the aisle to bring down Hanson's nod.

That means kowtowing to the man who holds the nomination in his hands, an almost unrecognizable Gary Oldman, as Rep. Shelly Runyon (R-IL). Runyon is the kind of petty, powered-by-seniority Presidential also-ran whose scrawny little body is set firmly in the path of veep nominee. Not only does he prefer Hathaway, he's pouting that the President didn't personally inform him about the nomination, sending instead his Chief of Staff (Sam Elliot). Simply, it appears that Shelly's feelings have been hurt. Governments have fallen on less. One is about to, if not fall, find itself rocked to the core in what is for all but about five minutes of its running time, a gripping and almost perfect moviegoing experience.

As political battles seem to do, everything made public masks the real truth of wheeling and dealing and flat-out backstabbing in the back halls of Congress. In this case, certain pictures have surfaced in which what is alleged to be an 18 year-old Hanson is seen engaging in what Hanson determines is "deviant behavior." How the pictures were uncovered (sic), how they made their way into the record and Hanson's utter refusal to even speak about the allegations are the foundation upon which this story rests.

Regardless of what "the truth" may be, or what the viewer's political stance is, Lurie's script clearly lays out the subtleties of how politicians can indirectly put words into a person's mouth and how the reaction of the wronged party (sic) can be used to make the accuser's point. How "appearance" matters is a subtlety that underscores every actor's performance in this film all the way up to the occasional comic relief provided by President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges), a down-home type who smokes cigarettes, drinks Greek tea and spends a good part of his day trying to stump the White House kitchen. Evans is no clown. His down-home style masks a willingness to bring the political hammer down whenever necessary. Playing political hardball is what gives The Contender its greatest moments. It is also what comes very close to wrecking the ride in the very last scenes, as Lurie's script does an abrupt shift from storytelling to political preaching. (It has nothing to do with Cranky's personal politics, which in this case are in line with Lurie's. We'll detail the problem in the spoiler space at the very bottom of the page).

Aside from that one misstep, The Contender presents you with the opportunity to see exceptional performances by Allen and Oldman and Bridges, all of which make the list of the best we've seen this year.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Contender, he would have paid...


The Contender is still highly recommended to y'all. We knocked a buck off the rating because the ending was so off kilter. SPOILER HERE (swipe it with your mouse -and don't read it until you've seen the movie. You're on your honor... even the politicians out there): Jeff Bridges' speech castigating the Congress is addressed to the moviegoing audience that has political knowledge that, it is not established, the Congress does not have. With that ringing falsely, our brain started deconstructing the chain of events leading up to that joint session of Congress: Rep. Webster gives the vindication letter to Hanson and Runyon and the President. The committee never sees it because Hanson asks that they not -- it's part of her principled stand that her private life not affecting her work has no place in the record. The Congress, it follows, hasn't seen the letter either. The President wagging his finger at 466 people thinking "I can't defend a gang-banger" doesn't equate to a standing ovation response from those folk. Or, at minimum, at least 49% of 'em.]

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