We’re going political again today. I was watching a few episodes of The West Wing over the weekend and it just got me in the mood for some intelligent drama, and then we I spotted this little number on instant watch well, I was in there like a rat up a drainpipe.
Baby Jesus gave it topspin.
Second-term US President Jackson Evans needs to appoint a new VP after the death of his number 2. Determined to create a lasting legacy, he decides to kick in the glass ceiling by nominating a woman: Senator Laine Hanson. During Hanson’s confirmation hearing, rumours and apparent evidence of a sexually adventurous past threaten to derail the President’s plan. The Republican leading the hearing favours the Democratic Governer Jack Hathaway, but does he have his own skeletons rattling in the closet?
Why is it that all the most famous – and admired – fictional US Presidents are always Democrats? Alongside Jed Bartlet and David Palmer I will add Jackson Evans to my list, a man President Obama acknowledged as his favourite fictional POTUS in an interview back in 2008. As played by the great Jeff Bridges, Evans is a man of quick wit and mischief who favours charm and good-natured manipulation over outright confrontation in order to get what he wants. Backed up by Sam Elliott as his chief of staff (a man who can be called Kermit and still be imposing), Bridges thoroughly deserved his supporting actor Oscar nomination. But he is not the star. That honour belongs to Joan Allen as the dignified and principled Senator Hanson. Consistently one of Hollywood’s strongest actresses, it’s an outright sin that she isn’t headlining every single film being made.
Gary Oldman does his damnedest to steal the movie out from under her as the villain of the piece, Republican Congressman Shelly Runyon. Looking like Sean Penn in Carlito’s Way, Runyon is a firebrand of the first order who would no doubt be as at home behind a pulpit as behind a Capitol Hill microphone. Self-confessed political nut Rod Lurie managed to corral an all-star cast for his intelligent and entertaining thriller that manages to take a fairly dull event and make it exciting. Alongside Allen, Bridges, Elliott and Oldman you can add William Petersen, Christian Slater and Philip Baker Hall.
Only one year after his debut – the single-location nuclear thriller Deterrence – former critic Lurie shows his chops as a visual director with some audacious camerawork. One standout moment begins as a swooping crane shot over the Capitol before segueing into a steadicam that follows Oldman and Slater into the bowels of the building. As unfair as it may be, the snappy script earns every comparison to Aaron Sorkin’s more famous masterwork. It rewards your close attention and would undoubtedly stand up to a repeat viewing (though I haven’t had the chance to test that theory yet!). What I really want to do is watch this with a bunch of other smart people and then argue about it.
Opening with a thundering – and thematically appropriate – cover of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire (sung by Jeff Bridges himself) The Contender is a film that more people should see. If I have one reservation though, it would be the obvious partisanship in Lurie’s final edit. There was some controversy on the film’s release concerning allegations of tinkering to make the Republicans in the film appear more conniving and less sympathetic than in the initial script. That’s a script I’d like to read, even if it was just to make sure I got all the details.
Just as Sorkin’s script for The American President was a dry run for The West Wing, Lurie later examined similar themes of a woman following her principles in the White House with the short-lived Commander in Chief, starring Geena Davis as President Mackenzie Allen (Hey! I see what he did there!). That’s worth catching as well, if you get the chance.