by Lovell Mahan-Moutaw
The Contender is a good movie ruined by a terrible ending that
is only made a tiny bit better by a great dedication.
Let me explain.
The vice president has died and the president needs to appoint a new
one. The president is more than half way through his second term so
he is looking for his "swan song." He decides to appoint a
woman in order to be the man who is known for forever breaking the biggest
and most durable of glass ceilings.
He appoints a Democratic senator who used to be a Republican. For reasons
not ever really known, loyalty to another politician on the short list,
discriminatory factors, the fact that she's a turncoat, whatever, the
Republican chairman of the committee who will either approve or deny
the appointment decides he doesn't want this senator to be vice president.
He then goes forth to crucify her.
Through different means, he brings a variety of allegations against
her, including the possibility that she was involved in a sorority initiation
gang bang when she was in college. There are even pictures. Other things
come up, such as the fact that she stole her husband from one of her
She does not respond to the allegation about the gang bang, because
it is none of anyone's business. It is a privacy issue and anyway, no
one would ask a man about that type of behavior.
Joan Allen plays Laine Hanson, the contender. Jeff Bridges plays Jackson
Evans, the president. Sam Elliott plays Kermit Newman, the Chief of
Staff. Gary Oldman plays Shelly Runyon, the chairman of the appointments
committee. And finally, Christian Slater plays Reginald Webster, a newbie
congressmen with ambition.
The show belongs to Bridges. No ifs, ands or buts. He simply steals
it right out from under the very capable Allen. Oldman's chameleon-like
acting is always fun to watch, and make no mistake, he does well here,
but the show simply belongs to Bridges.
His President Evans is hilarious and daring. He is charismatic and
goofy. He utilizes the time-honored female tactic of acting stupid when
you are nothing of the kind. He captivates the eye whenever he is on
screen - Bridges doesn't - President Evans does - and that is what makes
it so fantastic. An actor of this stature and history in the movies
can't often transcend himself, but Bridges does in this (as he did as
The Dude in The Big Lebowski).
Bringing up a close second is Elliott as Kermit Newman. Blunt, loyal
and driven, he's got a job to do and he's gonna do it. I love Sam
Elliott, he is one of the Great Under-Appreciated. He is fantastic as
Finally, Allen provides a great female lead with her composure and
strength. She was also very good but the show was dominated by these
men. Which is a pity because it is meant to be about women.
The movie is supposed to be about politics and women's issues and Lurie
doesn't do a bad job. There are a few things for which I give him kudos.
First, when Hanson is selected and she is going to the press conference,
everyone she deals with (husband, aide, Chief of Staff, Assistant Chief
of Staff, everyone, except the President) makes a reference to what
she looks like and what she is wearing. Secondly, close to the end of
the hearings and during a particularly brutal bashing by Kermit, Hanson
tears up and actually cries. Yes, people cry, and yes, women are prone
to it, and no, there isn't a thing wrong with it. Especially not the
way Laine Hanson does it, without hysterics or dramatics. Finally, Elliott's
Kermit is brilliant in treating everyone absolutely the same. He is
blunt and coarse with man or woman - telling the FBI agent she is being
inappropriate (when she is) and reading Hanson the riot act when he
loses patience with her.
The dialogue is well-written and the story is intriguing. The acting
is wonderful with some of it going past that to superb. But the film
misses the mark and I'll tell you why.
1) It isn't believable. I know, I know, I know, it is just a movie
but sometimes it goes beyond that. There is no way in hell that a President
would nominate anyone, man, woman or child - black, white, brown, green
or fuschia who was as liberal as Laine Hanson. I share her beliefs but
I'll tell you what, I'd never make it as a politician with my beliefs.
No way in hell would this appointment be made...I don't care if the
President is making a point or has nothing to lose.
2) Hanson stuck to her guns about the privacy issue of who she had
sex with but had no difficulty discussing her maternity plans with the
committee. She even went so far as sharing what kind of birth control
method she uses. What is the difference between sharing talk of sex and
sharing talk of plans of procreation? And she is under no obligation to
share that information with anyone.
3) Finally, composure and idealism are lovely traits to have. But when
someone attacks you as brutally as Laine Hanson is attacked by Shelly
Runyon, I would hope she (yes, especially "she") would defend
herself. Silence, may at time, speak louder than words, but the point
she is making is lost on everyone but herself. It is important, for
your own feeling of integrity, to stick to your guns, which is what
I am assuming she is doing. But there is a possibility that she allowed
her name, her reputation, her career and her place in history to be
not only sullied but destroyed. And if it hadn't worked out the way
Hollywood intended, no one would have benefited from it. There are things
for which you have to put up your dukes and fight. She could have made
the same point by putting on her armor and instead of just taking the
hits of rocks and garbage, swinging some of it back right where it came
Women are assumed to not be fighters and this makes me angry. Women
often find themselves in difficult battles and need courage and intelligence
to pull themselves and their loved ones through. I understand Laine
Hanson needed to sleep at night. I understand it was the principle of
the thing. I understand that it took a great deal of courage to fight
the battle the way she fought it. But in the end, President Evans had
to save her ass with his ultimate "swan song." In the end,
the man stood up and spoke for her and saved the day. We may have known
what she was "about" but she didn't help herself at all -
or any other woman. So why did she fight the battle in the first place?
That said, the end was slightly ridiculous. Not the prelude to the
end which was wonderful, but the real end. Evans puffing up and pointing
fingers and being all political and histrionic. Hanson meekly going
about the life she created for herself. The music building to a
crescendo that was inappropriate and attention-getting and highly
manipulative. I was disappointed.
But then the screen faded to black and the dedication said ,
"For our daughters."
Well...I guess even in its imperfection, as a daughter and as a
protector of the future of other daughters, I'll take it.