The Vice President is dead. Long live the Vice President.
In the United States, at least, it's not quite that easy, as we see in The Contender, a tour de force from writer/director Rod Lurie.
We here have been living in a political climate that seems to get even nastier each election cycle. As I write this, next Tuesday is the mid-term election, just a bare three days from now. From all the ads filling the airwaves, it seems like every candidate is simultaneously an arrogant opportunist who doesn't care about constituents, and also a touchy-feely flower child who wants to be tough on corporate evildoers. It's clear the candidates don't like each other, but want us, the kind public, to think they do like us and have our best interests at heart.
Regardless of how American politics got to this state (is it any different elsewhere?), the fact is this is the charged environment in which public policy must be made, and every one of its participants must develop a thick skin in order to stay in the battle of ideals.
In other words, politics is a perfect backdrop for a character-driven story.
So, where were we? The vice president is dead, about six weeks now, and the president, a Democrat six years in office, is looking at his selection as his legacy (American presidents are limited to two four year terms). The sentimental favorite is Jack Hathaway, the governor of Virginia, thanks to his recent attempt to personally save the life of someone who drove off a bridge into a river. He didn't manage to save her, but that's the kind of publicity you can't buy. But the president has set his mind on designating a woman - the first - to the post. He calls up Senator Laine Hanson of Ohio.
The Senator is lying back on her desk, engaged in sex with her husband, with C-SPAN on in the background, when the call comes in. Why is this important? Well, as an audience, we are conditioned to take this as saying something about the character of the people involved. Don't worry, both the movie and myself will have more on this soon.
The man who stands in the way of Hanson's confirmation is the Republican head of the House Judiciary Committee, Shelly Runyon. He happens to be good friends with Governor Hathaway, despite belonging to separate parties. Runyon also suffered a defeat many years ago at President Evans' hands. It is not in his heart to be cooperative in this matter. In fact, he sees Hanson's nomination as "the worst kind of affirmative action".
The confirmation process comprises the bulk of the film. Runyon dredges up reports that Hanson was involved in an orgy as a freshman in college, and pictures even surface as proof. He leaks the information, and in committee acts indignant about such "rumors", but offers Hanson "the opportunity to respond", which is really the opportunity to be embarrassed. Sex is a messy thing in America, the more so when it's a woman's morality that's in question. Runyon has found one surefire way to torpedo this nomination.
But Hanson does not dignify the issue with a response, which really makes nobody happy. Runyon would prefer to catch her in a lie by releasing the pictures. The president and his advisors want Hanson to respond to save face with the public. Hanson, though, has different ideas about the situation, ideas that are not so much about politics. I'll stop telling the story here, to leave as much surprise as I can for those of you who have not seen the film yet - but I do have to relay one quote Hanson says toward the end of the film: "Principles only matter if you stick to them when they're inconvenient". I have loved this quote ever since the moment I first heard it. Not only does it fit perfectly into the themes of the movie as well as Hanson's character, but the statement resounds larger than the movie itself. How is it that everyone in this film is so astounded by one person following such a philosophy? What does that say about our political system, our politicians? How many of us can truly say such a thing about our own lives?
The film is somewhat partisan - as much that comes out of Hollywood tends to be. But largely, the partisanship comes from the characters' opinions, rather than the script pushing any kind of agenda. Honestly, any film like this that tries to be straight down the middle is going to fail from an insipid lack of believability like a fairy tale where the Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood walk into the woods hand in hand at the end.
I think I would have loved this film - with its dead-on perfect characterization, and the plot that falls together so perfectly because it's the characters that are manipulating everything, not the filmmakers - even without the quote, but that kind of puts over the top.
And the performances! Jeff Bridges makes a president we could only dream of, a man who is personable, but seems to always have a larger grasp of the situation than anyone else in the room. There is a tremendous speech he gives that culminates the film - the sort of thing we see in all sorts of movies about social acceptance, but so often comes out trite and obvious. It is a testament to both the script and Bridges' delivery that neither quality tarnishes this speech.
Joan Allen as Senator Hanson is a wonderful choice. Every moment, as a politician, a mother, a husband, a daughter, there is a reality in how she relates to the situation. We feel what she's going through even when her character is doing her best to hide them.
And Gary Oldman as Shelly Runyon may be the best of all. This man gave himself the most horrible haircut to look like he was in the midst of male-pattern baldness. Also, his American accent is impeccable - I would never have guessed it was him if I hadn't known beforehand. His portrayal of a man, effective yet cynical, personable yet incendiary - I just simply so rarely see someone inhabit a character so fully.
Even the cinematography is great. It resembles a documentary, at once privy to personal, behind the scenes moments, but also never quite getting all the way into anybody's mind.
I'll point out that there are a few mistakes related to the details of the political process - as an example, Senator Webster is too young for his office at just 28 years of age. I can't count off for these because they are all either within reasonable dramatic license or so trivial as to not matter.
I've put off writing this review for a long, long time, knowing that I wanted to do justice to this film that I love so much. I feel that The Contender ranks up there with the greats, films like Citizen Kane and Casablanca, and just maybe even better, if only from being more relevant in this time. The movie makes me emotional, and so even does writing this review. Perhaps it this one resounds more in myself than it will in other people, but I'll bet most of you will find you like The Contender.
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