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The Contender (2000) is a political thriller starring Gary Oldman, Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges and Christian Slater. The film was directed by Rod Lurie and focuses on a U.S. Democratic President (played by Bridges) and the events surrounding his appointment of a new Vice President (Allen).

Plot

Second-term Democrat US President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) must select a new vice president following the sudden death of the current VP. The obvious choice seems to be Virginianmarker Governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), who is hailed as a hero after he recently dove into a lake in a failed attempt to save a drowning girl. The president opts not to choose Hathaway, claiming that the administration cannot afford another Chappaquiddickmarker.

The President instead decides that his "swan song" will be helping to break the glass ceiling. He nominates Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), a talented senator from Ohiomarker who is a Republican-turned-Democrat. Standing in her way is Republican Congressman Shelley Runyon (Gary Oldman) of Illinois, who believes she is unqualified for the position. His investigation in her background turns up an incident where she was apparently photographed participating in a drunken orgy as part of a sorority initiation.

The confirmation hearings begin in Washington, D.C.marker, and Runyon, who chairs the committee, quickly addresses Hanson's alleged sexual imbroglio. Hanson refuses to address the incident, neither confirming nor denying anything, and tries to turn discussion to political issues. Anticipating that Hanson would deem her personal past "none of anyone's business," Runyon starts rumors in the media saying that the sexual escapade in college was done in exchange for money and favors, making it prostitution. Meanwhile, a woman testifies in front of the committee saying that Hanson engaged in a relationship with her then-husband prior to their divorce. Though Hanson is not guilty of adultery, her reputation is further tarnished.

Senator Hanson meets with the President and offers to withdraw her name, to save his administration more embarrassment. Despite the wishes of the administration, she refuses to fight back or even address Runyon's charges, arguing that to answer the questions dignifies them being asked in the first place - something she does not believe. The President meets with Runyon, informing him he will not choose Hanson as Vice President. Runyon casually brings forward Governor Hathaway as a replacement. They make an agreement that Runyon will back down on his attacks if the President chooses Hathaway as Vice President. However, the President requests Runyon to make a public statement defending Hathaway.

Hanson, Hathaway and Runyon are all invited to the White Housemarker. The president then shocks them by showing a FBImarker report that proves Hathaway paid the woman to drive off the bridge into the lake. It was part of a plan to increase his approval ratings and become the obvious choice for VP. Hathaway is arrested and Runyon is disgraced because he vouched for Hathaway's integrity just hours earlier. The president meets with Hanson, and she finally tells of what actually happened that night in college. She did indeed arrive at a fraternity house to have sex with two men as part of an initiation, but changed her mind before any sexual acts occurred. The girl in the photo was actually someone else. Though they have the evidence to vindicate Hanson, she explictly expresses that a statement not be made, even if it will clear her; citing that by doing so will further the idea that it was acceptable to ask the questions in the first place. The president addresses all of Congress and uses Runyon's predicament as a way to gather support for Hanson's nomination.

Cast and characters

  • Gary Oldman as Rep. Sheldon Runyon (R-ILmarker). Runyon is a conservative Republican who leads the attack on the nominee, namely by leaking rumors on the Internet, overseeing accusations of prostitution, and challenging the nominee's liberal position on abortion. He is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that oversees Sen. Hanson's confirmation.
  • Joan Allen as Sen. Laine Billings Hanson (D-OHmarker). The nominee for Vice President. She is a Republican-turned-Democrat who fiercely guards her privacy. Coincidentally, Joan Allen had one of her very first jobs ever as an actress working for producer Douglas Urbanski in Chicago in the late 1970s.
  • Jeff Bridges as President Jackson Evans. In the DVD commentary, Lurie explained the President does not have a confrontational personality, but relies on his charm to achieve his aims. Lurie's first choice was Paul Newman. Urbanski objected to that idea and suggested Bridges instead.
  • Christian Slater as Rep. Reginald Webster (D-DEmarker). A young Democrat who allies with Runyon to defeat the nominee, putting him in conflict with the President. This character while used to further antagonize the situation is more a supporting moral compass than he is an ally to Runyon. As a Freshman Congressman his belief in honesty and the process breathes a breath of fresh air into an extremely complicated plot.
  • Sam Elliott as Chief of Staff Kermit Newman. Democratic watchdog and President Evans' most trusted aide. Oversees Senator Hanson's confirmation for the Vice Presidency.
  • William Petersen as Governor Jack Hathaway (D-VAmarker). A popular Democrat and the President's heir-apparent. He has good relations with Runyon and is Runyon's preference for the Vice Presidency. Hathaway is also motivated by his decidedly ambitious wife.
  • Saul Rubinek as Jerry Toliver. Press secretary to President Evans.
  • Philip Baker Hall as Oscar Billings. Laine Hanson's father and former Republican Governor of Ohio.
  • Mike Binder as Lewis Hollis. Laine Hanson's legal counsel.
  • Robin Thomas as William Hanson. Husband of Laine Billings Hanson and Campaign Manager. He was previously married and had an affair with Laine while campaigning for Senator.
  • Kathryn Morris as Special Agent Paige Willomina. A clever FBI agent who collects information leading to the revelation of Governor Hathaway's liability in the car tragedy victim's death, to the complete surprise of many.


Reception

The Contender received generally positive reviews: from 127 reviews collected from notable publications by popular review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an overall approval rating of 76%. Roger Ebert gave the film four stars out of four, calling it "one of those rare movies where you leave the theater having been surprised and entertained, and then start arguing." Despite the film's R rating and limited appeal of its subject, it generated over $5 million at the box office its opening weekend on its way to a total gross just under $18 million, almost double its budget of $9 million.

The Contender was nominated for two Academy Awards: Joan Allen for Best Actress and Jeff Bridges for Best Supporting Actor.

The film has also been the subject of controversy, which revolves around the fact that the President and Senator Hanson, the primary protagonists, are both Democrats, and the primary antagonist is the Republican Runyon. In an October 2000 issue of Premiere magazine, Oldman supposedly alleged that editing cuts were made due to the studio's Democratic leanings. Oldman and the film's producer, Urbanski, reportedly accuse DreamWorksmarker heads Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg - all Democrats - of "turning the political drama upside down to make it mesh with their pro-Al Gore agendas".

"If your names are Spielberg, Katzenberg, and Geffen," Urbanski declared, "you can't have a film with a Republican character … who is at all sympathetic … being released on October 13 (less than a month before the Presidential election)." Oldman claimed when DreamWorks bought the film rights, the company forced director/writer Lurie to turn The Contender into an unbalanced, "Democrat-friendly tale". However, DreamWorks spokesman Walter Parkes denied the charges. "There's no indication to me whatsoever that Rod [Lurie] ever felt pressured" and that "One only has to look at the coverage of the [Democratic] convention to see that the owners of this company have sympathies with the Democratic Party. Did those sympathies enter into the editorial process...or the decision to buy the movie? Unequivocally, no."

Moreover, Ebert reported that Oldman's denunciation of the film never happened, and quoted Urbanski as saying Oldman is "the least political person I know" and taking credit for producing the film independently from DreamWorks, which eventually adopted it.

Director Lurie's personal atheism was reflected in the film's story, a theme which received some criticism. Senator Hanson was an atheist, a stance that she defended in the film.

References

  1. The Contender Movie Reviews, Pictures - Rotten Tomatoes
  2. The Contender (2000) - Weekend Box Office Results
  3. The Contender (2000)
  4. The Contender - Box Office Data, Movie News, Cast Information - The Numbers


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