THE CONTENDER (Rod Lurie, 2000)
There are many film directors who are excellent in their craft even if they do not write their own material, Scorsese, Spielberg, and Eastwood to name a few. However, I still prefer those who can write and direct, with names like Almodovar, Wong Kar Wai, Coen Bros. and after watching THE CONTENDER, my admiration for Rod Lurie solidified not only as a one-time success with his later film NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH (which I saw first).
Like Eastwood, Lurie knows how to turn words off the script into interesting visual drama. Politics is really Lurie's comfort zone, and like in NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH, this sophomore film from Lurie surprised me when I least expected it. Both feature heroines in great distress who rise up to the occasion and prove among everyone they are equal with men, but whereas NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH ends on a sad note, THE CONTENDER emerges triumphant.
Joan Allen plays Laine Hanson, a Senator tapped by the United States President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) to be his number two, following the death of the Vice-President. Hanson meets a shitstorm of political opposition, mainly from the conservative Republican Shelly Runyon (a riveting performance by Gary Oldman) who chairs the House Judiciary Committee responsible of confirming Hanson's nomination. Of course, it can be just another woman fighting for her rights, and those of women in general, yet the character of Laine Hanson is the biggest surprise of all. Hanson isn't just in it to prove her worth, she actually has a set of unshakable moral code that separates her from the vicious animals around her. She just simply refuses to play dirty.
The story runs like a maze where every character is particularly into cloak-and-daggers. Everyone's motive is ambiguous, which makes the story unpredictable.
By representation, Allen's character serves as an ode to women and their right to choice, and their right to become great leaders. Through a facade after facade of cover-ups, conspiracies, and setups, Lurie is able to make one explosive finish, and Bridges' speech in the end was kept very discreetly until such time the viewer needs to know the truth.
As in other political films, THE CONTENDER affirms the brutality of politics and how personal privacy is absent in the political dictionary. By Laine Hanson's example, Lurie ends on an optimistic note that not all wars must be fought with trickery and lawlessness.