The Contender

Critics can’t help having a bias against one thing or another. I, for example, find left-leaning entertainment hard to swallow — not because I’m a Republican, but quite the opposite: As a registered Democrat and moderate liberal, I resent movies that congratulate me for voting “correctly.” At the movies, I want to be entertained, stimulated, provoked, challenged; I don’t want my ass kissed. Since Hollywood is by and large Democrat, movies that argue intelligently and forcefully for a view closer to the right are in drastically short supply.

The Contender is unmistakably pro-Dem and anti-Rep. When the lead Democratic characters are played by the amiable Jeff Bridges and the dignified Joan Allen, and when the lead Republican slithers onto the screen in the form of veteran snake Gary Oldman in the ugliest balding-head wig since Bill Murray in Kingpin, there’s no doubt which side the movie is on. In a way, the movie is to be valued, I suppose, for taking a side — for not being wishy-washy — and Roger Ebert praised it in his review for being explicit about the political parties involved (since so many “political” movies keep it cautiously vague). Still, I wonder if Ebert would’ve enjoyed the film as much if good ol’ Jeff and noble Joan played right-wingers.

Bridges plays the President of the United States, whose Vice President died three weeks ago; casting about for a replacement, he and his staff settle on Senator Laine Hanson (Allen), a reformed Republican who once voted for President Clinton’s impeachment but now voices her belief in pro-choice, separation of church and state, and stringent laws against the sales of guns and tobacco. Hanson’s route to the Vice-Presidency hits a bump when some alleged evidence surfaces of her sexual misadventures in college — bluntly, her participation in a frat orgy.

Hanson stonewalls her interrogators, including the rodent-like Rep. Shelly Runyon (Oldman), at every turn; she insists, even to those who are trying to help her, that what she did or did not do as a college girl is nobody’s business but her own. This is true, but it doesn’t get more true through sheer repetition; writer-director Rod Lurie jackhammers the message into our skulls again and again, as if going after a political nominee for past foibles were a uniquely Republican trait. Democrats, I must point out, are equally skilled at that sort of mud-slinging; one of the movie’s better, more candid exchanges comes when Hanson, refusing to use a bit of evidence against Runyon, says “We’re better than that,” and presidential adviser Sam Elliott (in a wise, sturdy performance) intones “No, we’re not better than that.”

Jeff Bridges comes through for us; he plays his President as a man who knows he’s the top dog in any room and is secure in that knowledge. In short, he has fun — something in short supply elsewhere in the film. Gary Oldman, clenched in righteous disgust, hasn’t been given the material he needs to make Runyon more than a straw man (Oldman has claimed, fairly bitterly and probably with some justification, that cuts were made to the film to make it more leftist and his character less complex). Joan Allen has been great before and will be great again; here she’s playing a glass statuette of stoic nobility, and it occurred to me that I was watching many people spend a lot of time and tax dollars arguing over a cipher.

Towards the finish line, The Contender weaves back and forth, tying itself into unproductive dramatic knots to send the audience home happy — or at least the part of the audience conditioned to embrace pat Hollywood endings. Everyone gets a speech, backed by swelling listen-to-this-important-message music — even Gary Oldman gets a brief one, in the movie’s wan stab at bipartisanship. You may not go home happy, though, if you believe in the separation of church and cinema. The Contender thumps its Democratic Bible hard enough to put Jonathan Edwards to shame. Early on, a character remarks that schools shouldn’t talk about Jesus: “They’re supposed to teach, not preach.” The Contender preaches, all right, but what does it teach? “A woman shouldn’t be held to a double standard”? “Politics can be corrupt and self-serving”? “The sun produces light and heat”? Spare me.

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