The Contender

Written and Directed by Rod Lurie

The new film from writer-director Rod Lurie (his second after the little seen 1999 thriller Deterrence) is a well-made political drama that falls somewhere between Mr Smith Goes To Washington and Advise And Consent. It raises some pithy political issues, examines a number of "typical" personalities, and to its credit is not afraid to leave some of its issues undecided.

Indeed, the film's greatest weakness comes when it tries to tie things up too neatly. When the independent production team that made the film laid the finished product in front of Steven Speilberg at Dreamworks SKG, they had a two hour and twenty-minute cut. Speilberg brought in his studio's editors and "assisted" director Lurie in re-cutting the film down to a two hour and five minutes.

Co-star and Executive Producer Gary Oldman has argued that the Dreamworks re-cut removed most of the moral ambiguity in the film, painting the characters much more clearly as "heroes" and "villains." This may make for a more effective emotional appeal, an easier for film for a mass audience to digest - certainly a concern for a marketing and distribution company. It may also simplify and degrade the ideas on which the story is based, which would certainly cheat the audience of the more intelligent and thoughtful film that "might-have-been."

One of the "improvements" Speilberg has been given credit for is the addition of a musical coda behind one of the main character's most important speeches. I find that kind of blatant manipulation - music that tries to tell us what we should be feeling at a particular moment - one of the cheapest tricks in the repertoire, and before I had read about Speilberg's involvement, noted it as one of the few glaring moments of excess in an otherwise fine film. If Oldman's analysis is accurate, it is too bad.

Although this is an entertaining and engrossing film, it sidesteps several of the critical issues that it raises - for instance: that of the continued existence of two sets of criteria by which we judge private behavior, different for men and women; or exactly what kinds of moral standards we can and ought to apply to Public Servants' past behavior.

The story is that of Senator Lanie Hanson (Joan Allen), who is tapped by the sitting President Evans (Jeff Bridges) to become acting Vice-president, after the elected official dies in office. Drawing on the drama of both the recent impeachment trial and the Clarence Thomas hearings, the film tries to examine the mixture of noble idealism (a little) and petty partisan squabbling (a lot) that determines the outcome of her confirmation. These are interesting and timely questions.

The early part of the film, when Lurie is introducing his characters and examining them more or less impartially, is when the film is most effective. As the film progresses and his sympathies and prejudices (or those of the Dreamworks re-editors) become more clearly the driving force of the film, it begins to slip into the smug, sentimental territory of "message movies" like Mr Smith....

The crucial issue of the film is the conflict between the privacy rights of public servants and public's right to know. The question of the "character issue:" where and to what extent an individual's private behavior ought to be examined in order to make judgements about their fitness to serve in government - which is a lively topic in our current Presidential election - is examined in what starts out as incisive detail and ends as something with a little too much of the taste of melodrama.

But even as melodrama, it is melodrama of a very high quality. Lurie's writing at its best is complex, clever and literate. His characters show a high degree of human ambiguity. At one point President Evans quotes Napoleon, to the effect that the rarity of great Statesmen is due to the fact that the pettiness required to ascend to the throne of power rarely coexists with the greatness required to use that power well. Evans is blind to the fact that he is describing the mixture of mean-spirited self-interest and lofty ideals that motivates every character in the film, himself included.

The film shows us a view of what may be behind the curtain of sound-bites and photo-ops, into the dark back rooms where our political future is planned and plotted. It shows glimpses of both the idealism and venality of all of the characters involved. It is therefore all the more disappointing that the film ultimately chooses to transform its murky conflict into a more clear-cut "battle between good an evil" (does anyone detect a Star Wars influence?) resolved with a rather contrived plot point.

Lurie. directs an all-star ensemble cast. Sam Elliot plays Evans' Chief of Staff Kermit Newman. Christian Slater is freshman Congressman Reginald Webster. Oldman plays Shelly Runyon, leader of the opposition to Hanson's appointment and Chairman of the Confirmation Committee. And of course, there are Bridges and Allen.

Under Lurie's care, these actors add layers of nuance and insinuation that hint at even more intricate connections beyond those that appear on the screen. Slater slips into his character role with an ease that may surprise those who have come to expect flashier, more assertive work from him. His willingness to blend into the ensemble here, playing a relatively weak character who receives a "baptism by fire," is another element that lends the film credibility and balance.

Elliot plays an interesting role, that of one who is not a politician, but a political administrator - capable of suggesting and influencing the directions in which power may be wielded, but not in a position to actually wield it himself. He brings a dignity and gravity to the portrayal whose self-effacement is an effective foil for the vanity and ego pervading the world in which he moves.

Bridges' Evans, as indicated above, comes across as an interesting and believable mix of huckster and idealist. His vanity and maipulativeness - not to mention his childish concern with food - contrast with his insight into the political process and his understanding of history and the ramifications of the fight in which he is involved to create a very believable rendering of the psychology of a US President in the early 21st Century. Bridges brings an affability and humor to even his most manipulative exercises - such as his attempt to intimidate Representative Webster - that sends a chillingly mixed message.

Joan Allen was the star for whom Lurie - a former movie critic and long time admirer of her work - wrote this film. Yet it is far from a star vehicle and Allen gives a carefully measured performance that serves the narrative's dramatic purposes rather than her own vanity. She never milks her moments, using the minimum necessary to get the emotional point across and trusting the audience's own involvement to add the necessary dramatic accent. With the delicate understanding of how to involve the draw the audience in by leaving some blanks for them to fill in that she has shown in previous work, Allen demonstrates again what makes her one of the most effective film actresses currently working.

Gary Oldman is a perfect adversary for Allen. His willingness to take chances, with both character and reputation, serves him well here, playing a man who sees himself as both unerringly moral and, by necessity, ruthlessly effective. In interviews, Oldman has said that he believes his character is the real tragic hero of the piece. If that heroism doesn't quite come across in the cut being shown, it is still easy to see glimpses in Oldman's characterization of an individual far more complicated and interesting than the run-of-the-mill political-drama villain. Like Allen's, his performance here is of the highest quality.

The mix of glossy feature camera work - quite impressive for a film that was shot with a budget of under 15 million dollars -and hand-held, documentary/news-style footage; the framing, editing and pacing; keep the story moving along nicely. The effective rhythmic structure, that intersperses slower-paced expository scenes with fast-moving action sequences, creates both tension and a sense of forward motion that saves the film from falling into a quagmire of talky political-philosophy.

The Contender is a well-written, admirably-acted political drama. It raises some interesting and very provocative questions that are also part of current political debate. If it goes, unfortunately, a little too far in indicating its own prejudices as to what the "right" answers are (or perhaps even presuming that there are such simplistic things as "right answers"), it can be forgiven for the excellent performances and the effective film making that puts its story across with power and sincerity, and the commitment to raise those questions in the first place.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.