With the final presidential debate airing tonight and Ben Affleck’s Argo continuing to make a dent in the box office, America’s political season is hard to miss. I decided to test my thematic appetite by revisiting a film from 2000 called The Contender. It fits nicely into the ‘political thriller’ genre, inspired by films such as All The President’s Men and The Parallax View. This film, however, is a different breed than those preceding it, and a bit more CNN in tone than a movie like Argo. Rod Lurie’s The Contender takes us behind closed doors in D.C. and into the fast-paced nuances of party campaign strategy. Rather than using conspiracies and gun play, this story relies on insider savvy and our sense of justice.
What I remember as a well-reviewed film when it was released, The Contender is now 12 years (and 3 presidential terms) old. The film follows the action that unfolds after the president decides to nominate a female vice president (played by the talented Joan Allen). The confirmation process gets sticky, as her past is probed at relentlessly by a GOP committee chairman with ulterior motives (played by Gary Oldman). The pace is fast and reflective, and the acting is solid all across party lines. Especially memorable is Jeff Bridges, who plays President Jack Evans with playful grace and charm. Ironically, his Chief of Staff is played by Sam Elliot who was there to endorse Bridges as “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski. These two guys mesh well.
Coincidentally, Jeff Bridges can be found bowling in both films, but what really fascinates me about The Contender is its historical perspective. Most noticeable at first is the film’s timely yet deliberate references to Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Using a sense of humor, Lurie really allows the audience to feel an immediate familiarity with this kind of dog-eat-dog battle between the Democrats and the Republicans.
Watching the film now, during the heat of a presidential election, makes it even easier to compare the storyline to the actual dirt the parties try to dig up on each other today. Actually, since this movie was made, below-the-belt campaign punches have reached Rocky 3 levels.
The Contender is sportsmanlike in its environment, because even if it’s obvious which party the filmmakers want you rooting for, reality checks come often.
In one scene, Joan Allen argues with the president’s advisers that responding to the chairman’s heated allegations would make her “no better than he is.” Sam Elliot looks her in the eye and responds unflinchingly, “We are no better than he is!” This film is bold, and manages to show the true suspense that can unfold during a political vetting process. But like a good ol’ American film can, it champions values. It reminds us there are politicians with integrity, who hold their ground under tabloid fire. As Joan Allen’s character says in the film, “Principles only mean something when you stick to them when it’s inconvenient.”
The Contender may be a work of fiction, but it plays today as a bit of a time capsule. George Bush was elected just months after the film was released, and after watching the film I wondered: Was this possibly the turning point in American politics? Maybe it’s just the movie talking, but I imagine there was still a trace of party bipartisanship left on Capital Hill before 2000, a chance at actual negotiation before payoffs and corruption caused such a sad divide between the Blue and the Red. Maybe if the shift hadn’t been so great, Obama would have had it a few gray hairs easier today. With a slightly more leveled playing field, he may have shown more of the checkmate tenacity Bridges displays in The Contender. Whether that ever becomes a reality or not, this clip can at least assure us that no matter what situation we’re in, “The Dude” abides: