In his second term as a Democratic US President, Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) must select a nominee for a new Vice-President, after the death of the incumbent, We first see him in conversation with the Governor of Virginia, Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), who, in turn, we focus on in the film’s prologue, as he attempts – in vain – to save a young woman from drowning. Fearing the press will draw parallels between that incident and the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident which had done so much to damage the career of Ted Kennedy, the President and his Chief of Staff, Kermit Newman (Sam Elliot), decline to progress the nomination.
Instead, Evans decides that he can make history, and burnish his legacy, by nominating Ohio Senator, Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) as the first female Vice-President of the country. With the rules requiring that both chambers of Congress approve any nomination, Hanson’s progress to the role is impeded by Republican representative Sheldon Runyon (a superb, Joseph McCarthy-esque performance from Gary Oldman).
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Runyon believes the nominee to be lacking the required experience and, instead, expresses a preference for Hathaway. In investigating Laine’s background, the Congressman happens upon an incident from her college days, where she appears that she was photographed participating in some kind of group sex game, as part of an initiation. Reginald Webster (Christian Slater), a member of the House Judiciary Committee and a member of the same party as Hanson and Evans, joins the opposition to the President’s choice, thus making it an at least somewhat bipartisan cause to prevent her confirmation.
From there, the film moves to the confirmation hearings, where Laine refuses even to address the alleged incident, arguing that it is not of relevance, and attempting to make the hearings about policy, and her record. Continuing to exaggerate the story – adding detail that makes the game appear to be a form of prostitution – Runyon turns the heat up on the candidate, while the President must consider how far he is willing to go in backing a person the nomination of whom threatens to derail his term of office completely. If he is to back his choice, he must work out how to make the confirmation a reality.
The Contender was the second major political film to arrive late in the Clinton Administration, only to find itself virtually dead on arrival; the other being the terrific John Travolta-starring Primary Colors: a film that takes a facade of fiction to look at the rise to power of a man bearing a stunning resemblance to the 42nd President. Both struggled to recoup their budgets, despite being extremely germane to events in the American political system. Where Primary Colors was interested in the portraying of a public face in order to serve the wider policy goals, despite personal failings – along with how far aides will turn a blind eye to a candidate’s flaws – The Contender looked at the pressure of Congressional interest in a politician’s personal life, how relevant it is to a candidate’s abilities, and to what extent the whole process is about ‘winning’ rather than ‘truth’ or ‘public interest’.
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It is easy to see how, a mere two years on from the impeachment of Bill Clinton – with this film arriving in the Autumn of 2000 – it could have resonated more with audiences than it did. Whether it would have achieved a higher profile a couple of months later – with the infamous Bush-Gore election, and the debate over hanging chads – is debatable. That said, in some respects, much as 2019’s The Front Runner was a Clinton-era film appearing a couple of decades late, it is tempting to see The Contender as a work that may have resonated even more strongly had it been released in or around the first two years of the Trump Administration. The glass ceiling theme, and relevance of personal character would have played strongly in 2016, for obvious reasons; it may also have worked as an interesting counterpoint to the confirmation hearings around Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.
Whatever the case, The Contender was somewhat buried at the time. Where the Oscars earlier that year had celebrated a previous year that ranks amongst the finest in cinematic history, a film such as this, which is as accomplished as anything that year offered – a terrible, overbearing, slightly cheesy, sub-TV score aside – slipped out in October to little reaction.
That is a shame, as with a stronger box office The Contender may have ended up being considered as the first real big hitter of the new century. It is an exquisitely made film, from a director, Rod Lurie, who would never get near producing anything of this standard again. Performances are as nuanced as a straightforward good guy/bad guy Congressional battle can be, with at least an attempt made to imbue the Runyon character with motivations, and a viewpoint; though his realpolitik approach to the game he is playing is far from sympathetic. This is film making from the Democratic viewpoint – and perhaps goes a way to explaining its performance: it isn’t attempting to reach across the aisle. The cast list includes Bridges, Oldman, Allen, Elliot, and Slater, as well as Saul Rubinek, Philip Baker Hall, Mariel Hemingway and Kathryn Morris.
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Apart from some brief nudity and coarse description of the alleged sorority events, The Contender eschews any cheap titillation, content to exist as a dialogue-heavy 1970s style political drama, which lacks only the sweat-soaked paranoia of that decade. In this regard, it is a timeless work (if somewhat smaller than some of the films of its time), one that talks today to the twin double standards of women being held to higher standards in order to be let into the club, and the differences between how a Congressman will treat an allegation against an opponent, and how they will treat an ally. At least one of those can be seen to be a growing, rather than diminishing trend, in a political climate that is becoming ever more polarised.
As one of the great, largely-unseen films of the 21st Century, The Contender takes a superb ensemble of established character actors – all operating at their peaks – and applies them to a story that is of perennial relevance and interest and, as such, it could not be more highly recommended.
The Contender is out on Digital HD 31st July and on Amazon Prime 3rd August.