Released in the midst of campaign season, The Contender is a well-timed bomb of political pomp and electoral bombast from film-critic-turned-director Rod Lurie.
The big man in the White House is played to the hilt with Clintonian affability by Jeff Bridges. The President receives rare opportunity to nominate a vice-president, and he boldly backs Sen. Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). She's a sharp liberal atheist about to undergo the challenge of her life. A Republican Congress is opposed to the first female V.P., and Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) leads its ranks with a titillating and inappropriate sex-scandal smear campaign. Furor mounts. Hanson refuses to dignify the Congressman's claims with a response, and the president's ready to sling influence in defense of his historic vice-president nomination.
Lurie has a good handle on Washington's slick maneuvering and speechifying. Skills he exhibited in the nuclear conflict drama Deterrence are in full effect. The Contender twists and turns, winding through a world of cold calculations and heated arguments. Joan Allen gives life to her role, and Gary Oldman is equally impressive as her Republican attacker. A number of lesser roles such as Christian Slater's young hotshot give the movie further credibility. Action gets muddled at times, with an amateurish, almost TV feel. Nevertheless, Lurie creates a solid political drama that stands in support of public figures' privacy while marveling at the Capitol's powerful, double-talking tongues.