The political maneuverings in writer-director Rod Lurie’s second look at presidential life are initially infused with a jaded weariness. But unlike the leader anxious to prove his strength in Deterrence, The Contender’s president, Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges), is supremely comfortable with power, unafraid to manipulate events in his favor yet still fueled by the low-burning flame of his liberal idealism. So during his second term, after the sitting vice president dies, Evans nominates Sen. Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) to fill the slot, against the advice of chief of staff Kermit Newman (Sam Elliott).
But the president’s allies aren’t his biggest problem. That comes in the unassuming form of Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), the right-wing congressman who’ll lead the confirmation hearings, and who harbors nothing but ill will toward the administration, although he carefully cloaks his antipathy in moral rhetoric. Runyon quickly unearths some startling revelations about Sen. Hanson’s sexual history, and The Contender becomes a detailed lesson in the use of smear tactics during ideological warfare.
That it’s a woman whose character is being systematically dismantled before her peers and the country — and who clings to a stoic dignity throughout — is of key importance to Lurie. Hanson’s trial by fire touches on some old familiar topics (double standards and the glass ceiling), but Lurie ups the ante by blatantly exploring Americans’ unspoken discomfort with female sexuality. He also throws in the larger issue of how much of a private life public officials should expect, especially when the perception of how “good” they are is considered more important than their policy platform.
In this sense, Rod Lurie sees the role of the American president as a patriarchal tabula rasa etched by our collective fears and desires. Which means that in the end, we really do get the leaders we deserve.
Read Serena Donadoni's interview with Contender writer/director Ron Lurie.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.