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When the vice-president dies, President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) faces a tough choice. The ambitious Jack Hathaway (William L Petersen) is the logical choice, particularly as he’s just become a media darling having bravely attempted to save a girl from drowning after her car went off a bridge. But Evans opts for Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). The Republican dominated Congress is not about to let the Democrat President’s choice through easily, and tough politician Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) is appointed to head the confirmation hearing. A young Democrat Reginald Webster (Christian Slater) volunteers to be on the committee after convincing Runyon he doesn’t want Hanson as V-P. They start digging around, and find the dirt they were looking for in the form of allegations of a sexual frolic by Hanson during her college days.

"Is it worth your money at the bucks office? Yes. Does it prove anything? No. Nor does this fine film take the risks it ought to, to reach for the greatness of which the script talks in reference to leaders. Same with films: some can climb to greatness and others simply can’t. My sneaking suspicion is that investor nerves ambushed the ending. Without giving it away, it’s enough to say that the crucial issue is not confronted in the script. It would have made us all think harder, if it had been. The other disappointment is the way Lurie has shot the President’s Big Speech at the end, and allowed composer Larry Groupé to lay on the rhapsodic uplift for all its worth, turning what could have been a wallop of a scene into cadswallop filled with mush. But the film does demonstrate the demonic, inquisitorial nature of clearing candidates for high office in the US – and I do not find the process wholesome. Joan Allen, however, for whom Lurie wrote the screenplay in admiration, is sensational, as is Jeff Bridges as the President. There are so many familiar resonances through the film from recent political history - even for Australians - that at times we feel it is trying to finesse itself into the canvas of reality. At the core of The Candidate is a set of questions about who is fit to lead a society, and who is not. Lurie mixes into this already potent recipe the gender issue: how a woman is assessed differently. The arguments that the protagonists put forward are all gripping, and it would be great to think that the film reaches a wide audience. It deserves to, for all its strong points, which include a brilliant characterisation by Gary Oldman, who also produced. The style is edgy and active, with action within the frame even as the camera itself is moving, as in an early scene inside an official car, where we get limo-cam views.

Footnote: Senator Laine Hanson bears no resemblance to Australian right wing politician, Pauline Hanson."
Andrew L. Urban

"Rod Lurie’s The Contender is the cinematic equivalent of lifting a rock to find all manner of slithering creatures beneath. If ever we needed reminding that politics is a grubby game, this is the film to do it. No one is innocent – even the heroic vice-presidential candidate. But it also serves to remind us that truly great leaders can transcend the prejudice, pettiness and the muckraking to achieve something meaningful. As for those well-publicised allegations of political bias, my feeling is that the film simply couldn’t work without being political. Lurie uses a variety of cinematic techniques – some showy but most subtle – to tell his story. It’s a mark of his skill that with minimal music and a 126 minutes run time, the film hardly misses a beat. The only sour note is the ending, which wimps out for the soft option. Indeed, it’s so dissonant with the remainder of the film, rumours of last minute re-writes appear correct. Joan Allen turns in a wonderful central performance of great depth as the Senator under the spotlight, and her Oscar nomination is fully deserved. Gary Oldman undergoes yet another extraordinary transformation as Shelly Runyon, and plays the role with both conviction and credibility; while both Christian Slater and William L Petersen lend solid support. But for me, the highlight was Jeff Bridges as the President (another Oscar nominee). Yes, he’s clearly a larger-than-life figure in the Clinton mould, but the fine nuances of his performance shouldn’t be overlooked. Although its denouement may disappoint, The Contender is nonetheless a fine political drama which seeks out the dark underbelly of the system, yet somehow makes us believe that darkness can be overcome."
David Edwards

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See our interview with JOAN ALLEN



CAST: Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman, Christian Slater, William L. Petersen

PRODUCERS: Willi Bär, Marc Frydman, James Spies, Douglas Urbanski


SCRIPT: Rod Lurie


EDITOR: Michael Jablow

MUSIC: Larry Groupé


RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes



VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount Pictures

VIDEO RELEASE: August 24, 2001

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