To me, "The Contender" represents the kind of film that only Hollywood can make, and make properly, and make well. Like "The Firm," and "Erin Brockovich," it attacks the structures in America that make us cringe at the harm they do. But in case you didn't know, Hollywood passed on this film and it ended up being financed by some German money and produced by the actor Gary Oldman's production company -- and then he ended up despising the film because of its left-wing leanings. Go figure.
In any case, the film is good, it works, and it has two wonderful performances that might lead to Oscar nominations. It's the story of a woman senator named Laine Hanson, played by Joan Allen (who's never before had the lead in a feature film -- you might remember her as Pat Nixon and as the mother in "Pleasantville") who's nominated by the President to fill out the term of a Vice President who's just died. She's the first woman nominee for the office, she recently switched parties from Republican to Democrat, and now she has to be confirmed by a House Committee chaired by right-wing fanatic Shelly Runyon, played by Gary Oldman. Are we in Clinton-impeachment territory here? Of course, but so what? There are plot contrivances that pop up every ten minutes or so, but the film has drive and energy enough to make us take them in stride.
Jeff Bridges is President Jackson Evans, in a breathtaking performance as a man born to win. He combines the wit and charm of Bill Clinton with the killer political instinct of LBJ, and his incessant snacking from the White House kitchen is a delicious running gag through the film. Writer-director Rod Lurie has given him all the best lines, and Bridges knows exactly how to share them with us.
No sooner has Hanson been nominated, over the seemingly logical candidate Senator Jack Hathaway (William Peterson), who as the film opens is trying to rescue a young woman whose car has gone off a bridge under which he just happens to be fishing with a reporter, than Runyon opens a campaign of innuendo and smear against her. She's already a declared atheist and a party turncoat, and now he finds some photos of her in college giving blow jobs to the fraternity boys. But instead of denying it she simply says that she will not discuss anything in her personal life.
The film seesaws back and forth from the Oldman camp to the President's, with advisers getting worried all over the place and investigators threading their way through on mysterious errands. Hanson's character is thinly drawn, but Allen works hard to flesh her out, both in the House hearing room and in the Oval Office. Her home life (she's married with a 6-year-old son) is even sketchier, but we sense the solidity of the woman.
Bridges is a delight, in a role that he seems born to play; he massages his opponents, understands them better than they do themselves, maneuvers a Democratic member of the Committee (Christian Slater) away from supporting Runyon, in what will no doubt come to be known as the famous shark-sandwich scene, and sticks to his guns even when all is crumbling around him.
Oldman is a problem for me. A brilliant British actor and director, he seems unequal to the task of showing us a fanatic and bitter right-wing Illinois Congressman. His accent wobbles throughout, and he plays the part as even more of a stereotype than it was, already thinly, written. He's not a worthy enough adversary to give the film any sense of tragedy or doom. All the weight is on the side of the good guys. Of course, as we have seen in the Clinton hearings, the real House adversaries weren't worth much either, so perhaps it would be too much of a fantasy to think that art could make deeper what real life couldn't.