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Contender, The

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Review by Chris Hughes | posted March 16, 2001 | E-mail the Author

Features: Widescreen anamorphic - 1.85:1. Available Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround). Commentary by director Rod Lurie and actress Joan Allen. Production notes. Theatrical trailer. "HBO First Look" Making Of. Deleted Footage with optional commentary.

The Movie:
The political thriller enjoys a long and rich history. Early Hollywood produced many patriotic dramas, most notable among them the films of Frank Capra including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Later, as our nation matured and the viewing public became more cynical, movies including All the President's Men, The Candidate and The Parallax View ruled the day. Contemporary Hollywood seems to have turned its back on the form though, which is very strange given the volatile and contentious nature of current partisan struggles over national agenda and the presidency itself. The scandals of the Clinton administration and the attendant take-no-prisoners attitude of the right wing seem the perfect cloth from which to cut a modern classic.

The Contender aspires to classic status and a good argument can be made in its favor. Rod Lurie's film takes its themes right off of the front pages and presents us with a relevant, thought provoking plot. The story opens as a popular liberal President (Jeff Bridges) nearing the end of his term seeks to cement his place in history (sound familiar?). The Vice President has passed away recently and President Jackson Evans sees this fact as an opportunity to enhance his legacy by placing a woman in the executive office. His candidate for the job is one Laine Hanson (Joan Allen in the title role), a popular Senator with a checkered past. Laine seems to be a shoo-in for the job until senior Republican Senator Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), in a bid to block her confirmation, discloses evidence of a sexual scandal from her college years. When the issue comes up in Senate hearings Laine refuses to address the charges on the basis that her private life should not be an issue and by doing so infuriates both the president and her opponents. Meanwhile governor Jack Hathaway (William L. Petersen), after being passed up for the nomination, maneuvers behind the scenes and hopes for a second chance at the job if and when Laine is eliminated. Will Laine stick to her convictions, weather the storm and be confirmed as the next Vice President or will the powerful forces arrayed against her ruin her bright political future?

The plot of The Contender is solid, subtle and genuinely suspenseful with plenty of unexpected twists and turns. The dialogue is well written and has a realistic feel that keeps the movie from pitching over into satire and or comedy. Even without a star studded cast The Contender would probably have been a satisfactory film but it's the incredible performances of the principals that make this production special. Joan Allen is entirely credible as the besieged Senator Hansen, delivering a broad range of emotions that play off nicely against Bridges' homespun and amiable portrayal of President Evans. In the role of political heavy Gary Oldman is the real stand out. Oldman captures the complexity of such noted figures as Orin Hatch and Arlen Specter without putting a pejorative spin on their motives. He literally becomes the image of a staunch Republican and then invests his character with a very sympathetic side. Oldman's character may be the villain in this film but, thanks to his interpretation, we see Shelly as a man of great courage and conviction. Only his tactics seem questionable.

The Picture:
The Contender features a beautiful anamorphic transfer from source material that appears to be near reference quality. The images are rich and smooth with fantastic colors, deep blacks and exemplary shadow detail. Some of the location shots (probably stock footage) show a little grain but the picture is mainly crisp and satisfying to look at. The only flaw is a few instances of over sharpening that causes vertical and horizontal lines to boil from time to time. This effect is limited though and never distracts from an otherwise spot on transfer.

The Sound:
This is a dialogue driven film so don't expect the disc to give your home theater a workout. The 5.1 audio mix is center focused with the surrounds used mostly for ambient effects and music. There is some right to left panning and a little bit of LFE activity but they're certainly nothing to write home about. That being said the track does exactly what it needs to. The volume is consistent, the dialogue clear and the score quite detailed. The overall dynamic range is broad and I wasn't able to detect any instances of overload or clipping.

The Extras:
DreamWorks gives The Contender special edition treatment on this release by including a number of very interesting extras. First off you'll find an audio commentary track with Joan Allen and writer/director Rod Lurie. Unlike many audio commentaries this one doesn't dwell on self-congratulatory speeches and dull on-set anecdotes. Rather, Lurie and Allen focus on the plot elements, the cinematography and the acting. I found the track satisfyingly informative and fun to listen to. Next up is a large collection of deleted scenes. The Contender was the first film released by DreamWorks that wasn't made by the studio itself. Stephen Spielberg bought the distribution rights to the film and then helped Lurie recut it. Among these excised scenes is some of the footage that the second cut removed and they show how editing can change the mood and tone of the story. Optional directory commentary allows Lurie to offer insights on the editing process and on working with one of Hollywood's most respected figures. The third extra is a short featurette (an HBO First Look installment) entitled 'The Making of a Political Thriller' and it's fairly standard promotional fair. You won't get a lot of new information from the featurette but it is interesting if only for the behind the scenes footage. Finally, there's a theatrical trailer and a large collection of text screens addressing cast, crew and production notes.

The Contender is an outstanding film that should be of interest to political junkies, drama fans, suspense lovers and those who appreciate fine performances by actors at the top of their form. The adult nature of the content will prohibit family viewing but it shouldn't cause you to shy away from The Contender. This is clearly one of the overlooked great films of 2000 and one that should eventually be proven a modern classic. The only things keeping me from rating it a Collector's Series disc is the weak featurette and the rather preachy dialogue near the end of the movie. Highly Recommended.

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Highly Recommended

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