The Contender is a 2000 political drama film written and directed by Rod Lurie. It stars Gary Oldman, Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges and Christian Slater. The film focuses on a fictional United States President (played by Bridges) and the events surrounding his appointment of a new Vice President (Allen).
The film serves as a response to the Lewinsky scandal that arose during the presidency of Bill Clinton. It also became the subject of controversy regarding alterations that allegedly displeased Oldman, who co-produced. Joan Allen was nominated for Best Actress and Jeff Bridges for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards.
Second-term Democratic U.S. President Jackson Evans must select a new Vice President following the sudden death of his previous vice president. The obvious choice seems to be Virginia Governor Jack Hathaway, who is hailed as a hero after he recently dove into a lake in a failed attempt to save a drowning girl. The President instead decides that his "swan song" will be helping to break the glass ceiling by nominating Laine Hanson, a talented Democratic senator from Ohio. In accordance with the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, approval from both houses of Congress is required. Standing in her way is Republican Congressman Sheldon Runyon of Illinois, who believes she is unqualified for the position, and backs Hathaway for the nod. His investigation into her background turns up an incident where she was apparently photographed participating in a drunken orgy as part of a sorority initiation. He is joined in his opposition by Democratic Representative Reginald Webster.
The confirmation hearings begin in Washington, D.C., and Runyon, who chairs the committee, quickly addresses Hanson's alleged sexual imbroglio. Hanson refuses to address the incident, neither confirming nor denying anything, and tries to turn the discussion towards political issues. Anticipating that Hanson would deem her personal past "none of anyone's business," Runyon starts rumors in the media saying that the sexual escapade in college was done in exchange for money and favors, making it prostitution.
Hanson meets with Evans and offers to withdraw her name, to save his administration more embarrassment. Despite the wishes of the administration, she refuses to fight back or even address Runyon's charges, arguing that to answer the questions dignifies them being asked in the first place—something she does not believe. Evans meets with Runyon, informing him he will not choose Hanson as Vice President. Runyon casually brings forward Hathaway as a replacement. They make an agreement that Runyon will back down on his attacks if Evans chooses Hathaway as Vice President. However, Evans requests Runyon to make a public statement defending Hathaway.
Hanson, Hathaway and Runyon are all invited to the White House. Evans then shocks them by showing a FBI report that proves Hathaway paid the woman to drive off the bridge into the lake, part of a plan to increase his approval ratings. Hathaway is arrested and Runyon is disgraced because he vouched for Hathaway's integrity just hours earlier. Evans meets with Hanson, and she finally tells what actually happened that night in college. She said that she did indeed arrive at a fraternity house to have sex with two men as part of an initiation, but changed her mind before any sex occurred. However, she did not prove her innocence, citing that by doing so will further the idea that it was acceptable to ask the questions in the first place. Evans addresses Congress, where he chastises all Democrats and Republicans who blocked Hanson's confirmation. He explicitly calls out Runyon, who leaves in humiliation. Although he declares that Hanson had asked for her nomination to be withdrawn so he could finish his presidency with triumph over controversy, he remains adamant and calls for an immediate confirmation vote. Congress applauds.
|Gary Oldman||Sheldon Runyon||(R-IL) Representative, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee|
|Joan Allen||Laine Billings Hanson||(D-OH) Senator, vice presidential nominee|
|Jeff Bridges||Jackson Evans||(D) President of the United States|
|Christian Slater||Reginald Webster||(D-DE) Representative, House Judiciary Committee member|
|Sam Elliott||Kermit Newman||White House Chief of Staff|
|William Petersen||Jack Hathaway||(D-VA) Governor of Virginia|
|Saul Rubinek||Jerry Toliver||White House Press Secretary|
|Philip Baker Hall||Oscar Billings||(R-OH) former Governor of Ohio, Laine Hanson's father|
|Mike Binder||Lewis Hollis||Laine Hanson's legal counsel|
|Robin Thomas||William Hanson||Campaign manager, Laine Hanson's husband|
|Kathryn Morris||Paige Willomina||FBI Special Agent|
Director Rod Lurie stated he wrote the screenplay because he wished to make a film starring Joan Allen, and wrote the part of Laine Hanson with her in mind. Having a fascination with politics, and inspired by his daughter, he wished to make a feminist film that would differ from Allen's frequent role as troubled wife. At the time, the Lewinsky scandal was in the news, and actor Jeff Bridges acknowledged the story was a response to it. In writing the screenplay, Lurie considered a number of possible endings, including one where Laine is assassinated. However, he wanted to give a message of hope to his daughter and audiences.
Actor Gary Oldman decided to produce the film, attracted to the screenplay which he felt was reminiscent of All the President's Men (1976). He did not see Sheldon Runyon as a villain, and Lurie claimed he was not written to be one. Oldman's manager Douglas Urbanski noted they independently produced the film before DreamWorks became involved.
Before approaching Jeff Bridges for the part of President Evans, Lurie submitted the screenplay to Paul Newman, reflecting how the character was envisioned to be older than he is in the final film. Newman turned down the role, which Lurie attributed to the actor's retirement. Bridges also sings the song featured in the beginning of the film.
Lurie wanted Sam Elliott for the part of Kermit, despite skepticism that he was best known for playing cowboys. Christian Slater joined the cast, saying he was interested in the screenplay's discussion of principles.
The scene where Laine is interviewed by Larry King was shot before principal photography. False gravestones were made for a set recreating Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, with many of the markers having the same name, while The Washington Post gave permission for shooting in their office for one scene.
A number of scenes were filmed during rain, but this precipitation does not appear in the film because a severe amount is needed to be visible. In one such scene, before Laine is announced as vice presidential nominee, a typhoon was forecast, and Lurie's assistant from India performed a religious ritual to ward it off, which the director credited with working. The scene where Laine debates abortion with the House Judiciary Committee is directly influenced by The Manchurian Candidate (1962).
After the film was nearly completed, Laurie received a phone call saying producer Steven Spielberg was interested in the project. Lurie and Allen said it was the first time DreamWorks adopted a film the company had not produced.
Laurie said nearly 30 minutes of footage was deleted because it did not reflect intended themes of principles and leadership. Based on lack of enthusiasm in test screenings to the final scene where Laine addresses the House Judiciary Committee, and with Spielberg's advice, Lurie added music intended to be inspirational, which did receive a better response from test audiences.
The film finished its run with a total domestic gross of $17,872,723, a low amount even though the release during the United States presidential election, 2000 could have created interest. It earned $22,361,811 worldwide.
The Contender received generally positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film four stars out of four, calling it "one of those rare movies where you leave the theater having been surprised and entertained, and then start arguing." Emanuel Levy wrote in Variety that Lurie was improving as a director and screenwriter, but the film was "too obvious and verbose." Lisa Schwarzbaum gave the film a B- in Entertainment Weekly, saying Bridges emulated Bill Clinton in "charisma, charm, appetite," and that "The Contender booms and pontificates, full of bravado and that ineffable quality of the current political season, chutzpah," but "only pretends to be enlightened, liberal." Rolling Stone's Peter Travers called the film "a lively, entertaining ride" before descending into partisanship. In The Chicago Tribune, Michael Wilmington called it "a smart, tense political drama about presidential politics." Bob Graham of the San Francisco Chronicle praised Allen and Bridges. Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post wrote, "As entertainment of a tawdry but compelling sort, The Contender certainly delivers," but found Allen's character uninspiring.
In 2003, critic J. Hoberman assessed the film to be a feminist attack on double standards, in which "unbridled female sexuality" is perceived as a threat to the system. Hoberman concluded then-Senator Hillary Clinton was more the contender than 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore, and that the film was "a prophecy of 2004." Author Harry Keyishian wrote the ending, in which it appears Laine will be confirmed despite her civic religion, is unrealistic, and "swelling music replaces logic and probability." M. Keith Booker called it "a surprisingly complex film," in which Runyon is a villain who stands by his principles, while Evans is heroic despite being "a savvy politician," a harder man than what the public sees. In 2009, Gary Susman of Entertainment Weekly named Evans as one of the 10 greatest fictional presidents. The film holds an overall approval rating of 76% on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, based on 129 reviews.
The film has also been the subject of controversy. In an October 2000 issue of Premiere magazine, Oldman supposedly alleged that editing cuts were made due to the studio's Democratic leanings. Oldman and the film's producer, Urbanski, reportedly accused the DreamWorks studio and director Rod Lurie of editing the original film to make it more Democrat-biased, mainly by making the Runyon character less sympathetic than was originally intended.
However, Oldman stated in other interviews that his criticisms were only directed at Lurie and that the quote was "bastardized, kinda" when reprinted on Internet sources. He went on to complain that his issue with the film was how it became progressively less "ambiguous" as the editing went on, specifically citing the music as a problem in turning it into a film about "good guys and bad guys." Roger Ebert stated that Oldman's denunciation of the film never happened, and quoted Urbanski as saying Oldman is "the least political person I know" and taking credit for producing the film independently from DreamWorks, which eventually adopted it.
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- Ebert, Roger (13 October 2000). The Contender. Rogerebert.com. Retrieved on 23 December 2016.
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- Roger Ebert (2 November 2000). Making of a myth. Rogerebert.com. Retrieved on 30 September 2008.
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- Knolle, Sharon (17 October 2000). Contender Controversy Continues. ABC News. Retrieved on 23 December 2016.
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- Schwarzbaum, Lisa (20 October 2000). The Contender. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved on 23 December 2016.
- Travers, Peter (13 October 2000). The Contender. Rolling Stone. Retrieved on 24 December 2016.
- Wilmington, Michael (13 October 2000). 'The Contender' Plays Out A Very Modern Political Battle. The Chicago Tribune. Retrieved on 24 December 2016.
- Graham, Bob (13 October 2000). STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: 'Contender' mixes sex, politics and a bit of feminism as Joan Allen aspires to the White House. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved on 23 December 2016.
- Hunter, Stephen. Table That Notion. The Washington Post. Retrieved on 23 December 2016.
- J. Hoberman, The Magic Hour: Film at Fin de Siècle, Temple University Press, 2003, p. 227.
- Harry Keyishian, Screening Politics: The Politician in American Movies, Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2006, p. 49.
- M. Keith Booker, From Box Office to Ballot Box: The American Political Film, Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2007, p. 54.
- Susman, Gary (15 February 2009). 10 great fictional presidents. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved on 23 December 2016.
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- The Contender The Lebowski Podcast reviews The Contender
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