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The Contender

"The Contender" on DVD

Political Thrills

DreamWorks' "The Contender" is a political thriller in the grand tradition, updated to reflect Hollywood's current liberal mindset. It makes some excellent points, but the only problem with them is that they're 180 degrees removed from reality.

Joan Allen is terrific as Senator Laine Hanson, a former Republican who saw the light and switched over to the principled Democratic party. From her speech before the confirmation hearing, however, one wonders why she would have ever been a Republican in the first place (other than her family pedigree - her father was a Republican Governor); she recites a litany of her beliefs, and they could pretty well have been taken from a combined platform book of the Democrat, Socialist, and Green parties.

Anyway, Laine is a woman of principle and her nomination to the post of Veep would make her the first woman to hold that post.

Her nemesis in the film is Congressman Sheldon Runyan (perfectly played by Gary Oldman), a principled Republican who opposes her appointment because of her liberal bent. Much is made of the assumption that he's against her because she's a woman, but there's no evidence of this in the actual film, so one should give him the benefit of the doubt. The conservative Runyan is of the opinion that her liberalism is a cancer on American society and he figures the last thing the country needs is more of that mindset in high office. Determined to see her nomination fail, and in his position as chairman of the committee overseeing the confirmation hearings, he starts digging for dirt.

He finds it in a report that, when she was a teenaged college freshman, she was involved in a Sorority initiation orgy in which, drunk, she put on quite the spectcular sex show. The allegations are leaked to the media and when confronted with them, Senator Hanson refuses to be drawn into confirming or denying. Her position is that whatever may have happened, it was a personal matter and therefore no one else's business.

Sound familiar?

The parallels to the Clinton/Lewinski affair (pun intended) are obvious, but wrong. Where the Clinton affair was about perjury, abuse of power, and obstruction of justice (set against a background of sexual indiscretion), the Laine affair was purely personal, happened long before she was in public life, and was totally irrelevant to her current life.

The real parallel here, which clearly illustrates the 180 degree spin writer/director Rod Lurie puts on US political life, is with then-presidential candidate George W. Bush who, when faced with unfounded allegations of past cocaine use and a partying lifestyle when he was in college, refused to be drawn into it. His reaction was identical to Senator Hanson's: it's nobody's business.

Hanson's confirmation hearings turn into a circus as representatives from both parties (the only fans she seems to have are the liberal president - well-played by Jeff Bridges - and her own family) gang up on Hanson as hearsay and trumped up evidence is brought forward in an attempt to smear her and end her career as vice president even before it begins.

The parallel we're supposed to draw here is from Joe McCarthy and his communist witch hunt, but there's a better and more recent parallel that's almost exactly the same as the confirmation hearings in "The Contender" - and which once again illustrate the sharp turn from reality of the movie's portrayal of Democrats as being principled and Republicans as being the evil force that'll stop at nothing.

Remember John Ashcroft? The hearings to confirm him as president George W. Bush's Attorney General were far worse than anything that happens in this movie. Whereas in the Contender, Congressman Runyan has a steel fist behind the velvet glove he brings to the hearings, the real Senate democrats attacked Ashcroft viciously, mean-spiritedly, unmercifully, and unfairly - for the same apparent reasons Runyan opposed Hanson: differences in ideology.

Anyway, if you remember to switch the party labels around to make them reflect reality better, "The Contender" is a good movie with a lot of good points to make. Of course, you can't expect Hollywood, and DreamWorks in particular, to be honest when their whole raison d'etre appears to be to fight everything conservative and/or Republican.

The performances are excellent and, to be fair, the movie clearly shows that there's plenty of dirt and underhanded tactics to go around on both sides. There are no good guys in this movie, with the possible exception of Senator Hanson, who has the courage of her convictions.

Where Runyan is at least up front about his opposition to Hanson and his intent to see her torpedoed, however, the president uses similar tactics to get his way, but from behind the safety of closed doors.

And one of his victims, who he uses to get Runyan out of his way as well, is a highly placed and well-respected Democratic mover and shaker who was also in line to be vice president. So, while Runyan tries to torpedo an ideological opponent, the president deliberately torpedoes one of his own.

A couple of major speeches, one by Hanson and one by the president, further cement the movie's liberal mindset; fortunately they're both in character - though much of the president's speech, in which he also throws down the gauntlet to Congress to do the right thing, could just as easily have come from a Republican.

Still, it's a good movie full of interesting characters and excellent performances. Sam Elliott, for example, is outstanding as the president's right hand man, and Christian Slater turns in a good performance as an idealistic (but, unfortunately for the movie, conservative) Democrat who also opposes Hanson and works willingly with Runyan to bring her down.

The DVD is presented in widescreen, 16x9 TV compatible, and the soundtrack is in Dolby Digital and DTS surround. Picture and sound are first rate. Extras include an in-depth commentary by writer/director Lurie and star Joan Allen., deleted scenes, a very good "behind the scenes" feature, as well as cast/crew bios, a pretty good liner blurb, and the trailer.

The Contender, from DreamWorks Home Video
127 min. Widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 TV compatible, Dolby Digital and DTS
Starring Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, Sam Elliott, Saul Rubinek, Philip Baker Hall, William Petersen
Produced by Marc Frydman, Douglas Urbanski, Willi Baer, James Spies
Written and directed by Rod Lurie.


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Updated May 13, 2006