Saturday, June 05, 2010

"The Contender" (2000) - Movie Review

Nothing has been so captivating and engrossing I have seen in the political thriller genre as I did in “The Contender”. It plays like a David Mamet film but it has a life of its own. Its characters speak out plain and upfront unlike in Mamet but has the edgy nature of the great writer’s works. It has performances that can rightly be called sharp even though it is a cheesy word for a reviewer. It stands firm on principles as “Nothing But the Truth” did couple of years back and I learned as I am writing this line that Rod Lurie is the writer/director for that masterpiece too. This comes so close and so millimeter far away from the great stance of classics but for personal reasons becomes a great film and not so great enough to call it the classic. Clear as mud isn’t it?

A heroic Governor (William Petersen) is the bright light of hope to fill the vacancy left so by the sudden death of a Vice President serving President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges). But the President chooses Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) and this does not sit well with the Member of Congress Shelly Runyon. That is Gary Oldman playing the balding curly haired unlikable congressman. The confirmation hearing becomes the battle ground for slaying Hanson because Runyon ran a digging expedition on Laine’s life. This reveals a graphic photographs of her having an orgy when she was nineteen as a part of a sorority initiation.

On the front it appears like this high tensioned hearing drama which it does have but not the back and forth argument in a court room drama. The drama is outside this hearing, inside the White House and the office rooms in Washington D.C. Joan Allen’s Laine holds her ground stating that she will not comment or talk about it to the press, to the world of men surrounding her including the President. This film thrills in the strategies the people move and talk. The idea of power and its greatest nature put in effect. Threats flying like a juicy cocktail and the pleasure on having that ability to do so. This is arrogance glorified because the characters are playing survival technics in politics. They cannot literally eat other but can tear apart with words and sneaky innuendoes. This is politics at its best.

Shelly Runyon does not want to elect her because in his opinion she is not qualified. He milks information from one of the President’s compadre that the second man for the job was Jack Hathaway, the Governor who jumped without hesitation towards a car splashing into the lake he was fishing. He begins his works and assembles the men. One of them is an aspirant and energetic young man Representative Webster (Christian Slater). He is driven, ideal and learning the dirty game under the experienced. Everyone is very well convinced of the nation’s best interest and the greater good of their philosophies being put to use. When one wants something that is against their ideals, and values they have to convince themselves of the righteousness in doing it. When you are in the business of politics as Runyon, you do a damn good job of convincing yourself. To convince others, it is a cake walk and to a budding politician, do not even talk about it!

Gary Oldman cannot be more spiteful and hateful. He cannot be more ruthless in generating such an unforgiving resentment from his audience to the character he plays. His Runyon is the perfect zest for the certainty he believes in. Joan Allen as his direct target provides one of the calm and focussed performance in her Senator Laine Hanson. Being the Governor’s daughter and fighting against that shadow and then following it with the fact of being the woman in the men’s world, she is a strong politician. She comes through as a great mother, wonderful political daughter and a gracious wife.

If there can be a film President who can embrace the celebrity status of the position and make the person look righteous at the same time, that can be Jeff Bridges. Here he is so in control of this President, not slipping away into dilemmas or long pauses. He knows what he is doing and he charms his people with that status. He constantly changes the menu for his food schedule giving orders at the last minute and makes himself an ordinary person in enjoying these simple pleasures of being in power. Sam Elliott as his right hand man Kermit is equally enigmatic, loyal and threatening by his side.

“The Contender” cannot stop itself from being this most astounding thriller in word games and battle. Yet when the show is about to over, there comes the speech from the President. I thought the film deserves an applause ending and hence it goes with the nature of the field its playing. It went on and then on a little and that marginal “on” with the final smiles and claps snapped the forgiveness I developed for that finale. It does not mean it is a bad scene but for me even though the falter is insignificant to an otherwise great film, it stood miles away from the film I was watching. I was in a miniscule disbelief. But this is terrific film making and on the principle advocacy of its commentary on this historically marred man’s world, “The Contender” is the right path to the roads of equality and standard.

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