Screened as part of NZIFF 2001
An unlikely combination of West Wing and the National Enquirer, The Contender is the type of trashy but watchable political melodrama we don’t get much of anymore. Ripped from today’s headlines, with a veneer of social consciousness thrown in free of charge, it’s bombastic, pulpy and way contrived. But it does move right along and it’s enlivened by stronger, more enjoyable acting than this kind of picture usually provides.
Written and directed by Rod Lurie, The Contender serves up a look at the rough and tumble of presidential politics that makes the gang at West Wing look like the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Cheerfully and convincingly playing to our worst suspicions of how things are done in Washington, it presents politicians who are even more craven, back-stabbing and manipulative than we dare allow ourselves to imagine.
The Contender can also be seen as, drumroll please, the first post-Monica Lewinsky potboiler. It’s hard to imagine the seamier aspects of the film’s plot being even as marginally credible as they are now without those endless discussions of foreplay in the Oval Office. As it is, The Contender dreams up a really nasty sexual/political scandal, makes the most of it, and then after the titillation is over finds time to wave the flag and be patriotic. Which is why, though political leaders come and go, there’ll always be a Hollywood…
Writer-director Lurie has said that he wrote not only the starring role but this entire picture with Joan Allen in mind, and it’s everyone’s great good fortune that she ended up playing Laine Hanson. The senator is the heart of the picture, and Allen, without doubt as fine an actress as is working today, makes the difficult role of a woman who cannot reveal her increasingly intense feelings in public look natural, seamless and completely convincing.
The Contender does touch on some serious issues (the double standard in public life for men and women, whether a politician’s personal life is anyone’s business but his or her own) but its heart lies with the luridness of its plotting. The film’s lively twists are not too difficult to see coming down the road, but the proceedings still hold our attention and keep us wanting to know how it’s going to turn out. Which is more than you can say about real political events in this day and age. — Kenneth Turan, LA Times, 13/10/00