When his Vice President dies, President Jack Hathaway faces huge opposition when he chooses Laine Hanson for the job. Senator Shelly Runyon for one, does not take this lying down, and sets forth a public hearing that aims to delve into the apparent sexual misgivings of her past.
The son of a political cartoonist, former film critic Lurie mines a provocative political drama, that focuses on the nature of sexual witch-hunting in Washington, something not a million miles away from the Clinton administration. Indeed, it's impossible not to see traces of Bill in Jeff Bridges' beautifully nuanced turn, especially in a running gag involving his ordering any food he desires from the White House kitchens, a subtle but telling nod to abuse of power.
While Lurie's script is intelligent and accessible - as well as politics The Contender also contains digs at confessional TV - more than anything it's his ability with actors that shines through here: the aforementioned Bridges is on top form, and Allen in a contending position for the Oscar. Laine is boldly introduced having sex atop her office desk, and Allen's ability to suggest a woman with both a healthy physical life yet unswerving ethical standards is adroitly conveyed.
Although he has expressed some reservations about the film, Oldman is the best he's been in years, as the crusading McCarthy-like senator, out to "protect" the nation from a woman who may once have taken part in a college gang-bang: a sequence where he dines with Hanson sees him shovel down his steak with all the voraciousness with which he will eventually devour her. Or not. Lurie wisely keeps his reveal until the very last reel.
That said, it's also in the last reel when he drops the ball. Any movie that deals with American politics leaves itself open to grandstanding and patriotic speechifying, and when Lurie gets round to not one, but two of these, towards the climax, he can't resist the temptation to bathe his intelligent wording with an overpoweringly slushy and wholly inappropriate score. Proof that just one or two apparently minor directorial choices can ultimately completely marr an otherwise entertaining, well-crafted movie.
Great for performances, strong on story and tension, but blows it at the end considerably.