After two Oscar nominations and a series of roles as repressed women, Joan Allen finally has a chance to play a different sort of character. In The Contender, she is Laine Billings Hanson, a Republican-turned-Democrat senator who is tapped by the President (Jeff Bridges) to fill the position of Vice President, left vacant by an untimely death. The major obstacle to a smooth confirmation hearing lies in the opposition of the committee head, Shelley Runyon (Gary Oldman, who also served as an executive producer), a powerful and influential congressman.
The stage seems set for a confrontation fraught with dramatic possibilities, but novice writer-director Rod Lurie, a former critic, is more interested in ideals and ideology. While he may be applauded for that stance, ideals and ideology don't exactly possess the stuff of drama. Much of the film's action unfolds during the confirmation hearings and only the most rabid political junkie will be engaged. Those who don't watch C-SPAN round the clock might end up dozing or running out for popcorn.
Part of the problem is that Lurie has carefully stacked the deck. Laine Hanson is first presented as almost too good to be true. She's happily married with a six-year-old son, a father who was a former governor and a track record of liberal causes (a woman's right to choose, gun control, etc.). That doesn't stop Runyon. In his determination to discredit Hanson, Runyon uncovers allegations that as a college undergraduate she participated in a raunchy and raucous evening of freewheeling sex.
Hanson maintains that the issue has no bearing on her abilities to carry out the function of the office of Vice President and refuses to address the topic. Even when handed some potentially damaging information about Runyon, she opts for the high road and sticks to her principles. Of course, this being politics, she will probably have to pay a price for such moral values.
Given the limitations of the script and direction, the cast does what it can. Bridges offers a stalwart turn as the president, a shrewd tactician who knows just which buttons to push in order to achieve his goals. Christian Slater is saddled with the role of an idealistic congressman who learns a valuable lesson about pride and compromise. Sam Elliott is fine as the calculating adviser and Gary Oldman appears to be relishing the opportunity to play the villainous Runyon.
As she has proven in several other vehicles, Joan Allen can triumph over the most meager material and The Contender is no exception. Since this year has proven to be a rather poor one for leading ladies, it's more than likely this role will net Allen a Best Actress Oscar nomination. However, she deserves a much better vehicle.