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The Contender could have been great. But because of some inconsistencies, it’s merely powerful, daring, and refreshing.

A Presidential Appointment

Congressman Shelly Runyon, played by Gary OldmanThe vice president died three weeks ago, and now the president, Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges), must choose a replacement. Of the two obvious choices, the most likely is Virginia governor Jack Hathaway, who just last week heroically tried to save woman’s life while on a fishing trip.

But the president has almost served his two full terms, and he wants to leave a lasting legacy. He wants to be the first president to put a woman in the White House, so he appoints Ohio senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) instead.

A presidential appointment isn’t the end of the story — in fact it’s just the beginning. Congress gets to advise and consent on the appointment — they get to confirm his nominee.

Senator Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) lost the last presidential election to Evans, and he is still bitter. Runyon also happens to be friends with governor Hathaway, still Evans’ probable second choice. So as chair of committee to confirm the vice presidential nominee, Runyon sets out to destroy Hanson. He uncovers allegations of group sex and invents allegations of prostitution. When her reputation and political future are ruined, he’ll give Hathaway a smooth ride to the White House.

Politics As Usual

The politics in The Contender are very real, the ruthlessness all too plausible. The hearings are as painful, ugly, and misguided as in real life. The scenes of Hanson’s interrogation are inspired by the Clarence Thomas hearings, reminiscent of the Clinton impeachment hearings, and as cruel and senseless as McCarthy’s HUAC hearings.

Also, the intricacy of politics is portrayed very well. Politicians at different levels and in different parties play the incredibly complex game of social chess. Deals are made across every boundary for the sake of personal gain. Tracking every motive, action, and loyalty would be impossible, even if they weren’t constantly shifting.

Brought to Life

The political complexity is brought to life through just about every aspect of filmmaking. The dialogue is observant and real, the casting is inspired, the acting is appropriately powerful, and the direction and pacing are sharp and relentless.

Every character in the film is an egomaniac with too much power and not enough humility, yet every character is believable. The life of a Washington insider fills every corner of the screen. You can almost taste the power, intimidation, fear, and pride.

In short, The Contender is a good film, well made. But....

A Big But

There are problems at the end of the film, and they all have to do with a change in the emotion, a change in the entire mood of the film. Specifically, after a movie whose entire soundtrack consists only of dialogue and ambient sounds, violins, proud and sentimental, swell over Hanson’s most important speech.

Until this point, the movie remained neutral. Granted, within the movie there were good and bad people, noble and sleazy politicians. But the film itself remained an observer and not an advocate. But when the music cue came up, that all changed.

Two times thereafter, the film artificially inflated the emotion. The worst scene of all features a roaring, standing ovation from a bipartisan, bicameral crowd. This is the same crowd that had spent the last several weeks bickering, double-dealing, and backstabbing each other. No matter the speaker, no matter the message, there is no way this crowd could come together so quickly and absolutely.


Needless to say, I am ambivalent about The Contender. It’s a must-see for political junkies — cynics and idealists alike. It has great energy and unprecedented boldness.

On the other hand, the Spielbergian touches at the end (yes, Spielberg himself encouraged Lurie to inflate the emotion) are a huge compromise to a movie about integrity.