The Contender Reviews
"The Contender" grapples with the idea of a sex scandal taking down a respected politician; in the process, no stone is left unturned. While not necessarily a political thriller, the film feels like a thriller because the endless revelations and discoveries are just as exciting as governmentally-based conspiracies. In the political thriller genre, there is a tendency to snatch a real-life event and see how it will turn out on the big screen, and when the story is fictional, you can only sit back and attempt to count the parallels.
"The Contender" comes a few years after the whole Clinton/Lewinsky ordeal - even today, it's as if more people are aware of Clinton's despicable infidelities than fiascos like Watergate. Why? The population is obsessed with sex, and if a national figure is making whoopie with the wrong person at the wrong time at the wrong place, you can forget about the last politically based issue; private matters are so much more interesting.
Take only one look at Laine Henson, and you'll see an intimidating senator that is likely to be the smartest person in the room. But when you do your research, prepare to be surprised at what you find - when she was a freshman in college, Henson allegedly participated in a filthy orgy in order to land a spot in a sorority. In most cases, this type of story would appear on the cover of the latest "National Enquirer," disregarded by everybody and everything.
But veteran power broker Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) is the one who leaked the disreputable details; he's severely bitter, as he wanted Hathaway to get the job and is resentful towards Henson's decision to transition from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party early in her career. In return, Henson is placed into numbing public scrutiny, tainting her chances of becoming the president's newfound right-hand man.
Enlisting gender inequality, biased attitudes, and party prejudices to back itself up, "The Contender" is a hard-hitter because it is nearly impossible to disregard. The exact same situation could make headlines tomorrow, for all we know. Certainly, if a respected female politician were to face the same allegations as Henson, things wouldn't be much different. It's likely that there is a Shelly Runyon constantly lurking in the shadows, digging up some serious dirt in order to satisfy their own dying insides, and it's likely that if a man were in an identical position, there would not be as much hatefulness in store. The film unravels with the kick of a sneak attack, mounting and mounting until it knocks us out when we least expect it; the writing is pointed, as sensational as it needs to be.
Without a doubt, "The Contender" wouldn't work without the interplay between Allen and Bridges, two of our generation's best actors giving what can only be described as career best performances. Allen's no-nonsense approach is thoroughly convincing; even in moments when most actresses would take the opportunity to let the emotions of their character spin them into a melodramatic tizzy, Allen stays true to the iron-willed personality of the admirable Henson. Bridges, able to disappear into any role he is given, has the amiable likability of any president we've elected over the years.
"The Contender" is packed full of so many excellent performances and so much astute writing that it is, without a doubt, one of the best political thrillers of the 2000s. The last few minutes, which turn the film into a celluloid "The West Wing," are damaging but easily forgivable, however out of place they may at first feel.