When the Vice-President of the United States dies, Democratic President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) finds himself pressured to fill the post. The obvious choice is Governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), but when Hathaway becomes involved in a failed rescue attempt, his chances fade away.
Then Jackson comes up with a brainstorm. He wants to nominate Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), a former Republican who has all of the qualifications to hold the position. Her nomination is met with opposition from Republican Illinois Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), who opposes her views on religion (she’s an atheist) and abortion (she’s pro-choice).
In order to make sure that Hanson fail in her bid, Runyon begins an investigation into her past, hoping to uncover enough dirt to seal her fate. Runyon hits pay dirt when his team uncovers photos from Hanson’s college days of her involved in a sex orgy. Confronted with the evidence and an accusation, Hanson refuses to address the issue.
Instead, she stands her ground, creating a political firestorm during her nomination hearing. Desperate to put out the fire, Hanson’s supporters encourage her to tell the truth and get past it. Her decision to keep her private life private forces the President to dig up a little dirt of his own, and what he uncovers makes “The Contender” a riveting and compelling thriller.
There are very few thrills at the beginning of “The Contender.” It’s not that kind of movie. The thrills come once we have been introduced to all of the characters and made to understand their place in this universe. Once the ground work has been laid, the real fun begins. What starts off as a fascinating drama about truth and justice becomes a full-fledged mystery.
Writer-director Rod Lurie, who wrote the film for star Joan Allen, does a superior job of making all of this matter. The film is dialogue heavy, yet he never allows the film to lag. It’s delivery is fast and furious. It helps that he has recruited a great cast to flesh out the characters.
Allen is amazing as Laine Hanson, a performance that won her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. It’s a powerful performance filled with fire and conviction. Allen makes Hanson real to us. Despite her personal ideals, it’s important that we not only understand her, but stand up for her. We want her to succeed. Allen makes Hanson honorable and human.
Hidden under a bad haircut and horn-rimmed glasses, Gary Oldman shines as unscrupulous Congressman Runyon. Runyon is not a true villain, but a man who sees things differently and isn’t afraid to defend his opinions. Oldman doesn’t play Runyon as a monster, but as someone who believes her doing the honorable thing. It’s a deep, thoughtful performance that really stays with you.
So does Jeff Bridge’s President Evans, a laid back second-term Democratic who still has a hard time dealing with dirty politics. He’s a true movie President, filled with noble ideals and a sense of honor. Bridges plays Evans with such magnetism and charisma that you wish he were the President.
The supporting cast is equally outstanding, including Christian Slater as Runyon’s freshman Congressman whipping boy, Sam Elliott and Saul Rubinek as the President’s Chief-of-Staff and Communications Director, and Philip Baker Hall as Hanson’s father, whose best moments are included in the deleted scene bonus feature of the DVD.
Lurie creates characters and situations that are real and convincing. Most political thrillers rely on convention and convenience. “The Contender” isn’t like that. Lurie makes his characters work for their money. The film tackles important, controversial issues and never takes the easy way out.
The widescreen digital transfer perfectly recreates the many moods of the film, from it’s warm interiors to its bright, sunny exteriors. Colors on both fronts are natural and pleasing, with no saturation problems like bleeding or fading. Flesh tones are excellent, as are the film’s deep blues and warm yellows and browns. Depth of field and attention to detail is good. Blacks hold up extremely well, even in tough sequences like the underwater rescue. Thanks to a pristine print, there are no transfer issues like artifacts or noise. The transfer is as clean as they come.
5.1 DTS Surround
5.1 Dolby Digital Surround
2.0 Dolby Digital Surround
Excellent sound mix runs the full gamut, from explosive basses to minute ambient noise that is natural and realistic. Front sound field is perfect, with a precise front-to-right stereo split and a dialogue mix that keeps everything front and center. Rear speakers are frequently used for more ambient noise and musical cue feeds, while the front-to-rear spatial split really comes alive in the film’s more exciting moments. Middle and high ends purr, leaving no trace of hiss or distortion.
Closed Captions for the Hard of Hearing
Feature-length audio commentary with director Rod Lurie and actress Joan Allen. The professional love affair these two share is very evident in the full-length commentary that is scene specific. How refreshing to hear the talent describe what they’re seeing and still have time to express their opinions and insights. Lurie goes on in depth on how and why he wrote the film for Allen, while Allen discusses the difficulties in preparing for the role. Their enthusiasm keeps the conversation lively and always engaging.
Production featurette “The Making of a Political Thriller.” Made exclusively for the DVD, the featurette features a lot of back slapping, but it also features enough background on political thrillers and movies in general to make it worth a look. Most of the cast seem to spend their on-screen time confessing their passion for the project and their coworkers, but there are some in-depth opinions on the nature of the beast. Gary Oldman is most refreshing.
Deleted Scenes, available with and without director’s commentary. As always, watch the 10 scenes without commentary to enjoy them on their own, and then watch them with Lurie’s explanations on why they were excised from the final film. Unlike most cutting room additions, these scenes are actually plot heavy and were cut for time and not content. Philip Baker Hall, who plays Allen’s father, has two scenes that are vital links to the rest of the film. Now you can make that link. There’s also a great scene between Bridges, Elliott and Rubinek where Bridges explains why everyone in Washington D.C. acts like a trained monkey.
Cast & Crew Biographies, including most of the major talent.
Outstanding main and scene selection menus.
No vote is needed. “The Contender” is a winner.
$26.95/Rated R/127 Minutes/Color/20 Chapter Stops/Keepcase
ATTENDING RESIDENT: John Larsen
PATIENT: THE CONTENDER
BIRTH DATE: 2000
HMO: DreamWorks Home Video