The promotion ad for this ardent political drama written and directed by Rod Lurie is "Sometimes you can assassinate a leader without firing a shot." How true. It seems like the primary thrust of many political campaigns today is character assassination. What dirt can each candidate dig up about the other? In such a contentious and malevolent milieu, it is very difficult to focus on the genuine moral issues at stake in the political arena.
The Contender is a hard-hitting film set in Washington, D.C. The Vice President of the United States has died and President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges in a jocular performance) decides to appoint a woman Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) instead of the man everyone thinks is just perfect for the job Senator Jack Hathaway (William Petersen). On a recent fishing trip, he made a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to rescue a woman trapped inside a car that had plunged off a bridge into a lake. The press has made him into an instant hero.
The most formidable opponent to Hanson's nomination is Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), a Republican who believes that she doesn't have "the touch of greatness" required for the office. He also doubts her loyalty given that she left the Republican Party to join the Democrats. Runyon, a longtime thorn in the President's side, decides to use a sexual incident from Senator Hanson's past to bring her down. When the President's Chief of Staff (Sam Elliott) and White House Communications Director (Saul Rubinek) get hold of this information, they, too, are reluctant to allow such a women to enter their male preserve.
Joan Allen is riveting as the beleaguered Senator who is attacked from all sides when she decides on moral principle not to respond to these allegations about her private life during college. This exemplary character reveals just how difficult and daring it is to speak and to act ethically in times when character is assumed to be the name of the political game. In one crucial scene before the head-hunting committee led by Congressman Runyon, she compassionately refuses to use information that would politically embarrass him and turn the tide of public opinion against him. It is a magical moment, demonstrating the beauty of integrity and the selfless power of conscience in action. The surprising finale goes against the tide of cynicism about contemporary politics.