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DreamWorks presents
The Contender (2000)

"What I say the American people will believe. And do you know why? Because I will have a very big microphone in front of me."
- Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman)

Review By: Joel Cunningham   
Published: March 25, 2001

Stars: Joan Allen, Gary Oldman
Other Stars: Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, Sam Elliot
Director: Rod Lurie

MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content and language
Run Time: 02h:06m:21s
Release Date: February 27, 2001
UPC: 667068780925
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ BA-A B+

DVD Review

Much controversy surrounded the Fall 2000 release of DreamWorks Pictures' The Contender. The film was produced independently by director Rod Lurie, who then sold the film to DreamWorks for distribution. Within months, Gary Oldman, not only the star, but also a co-producer, went on public record attacking the film. It seems Oldman was unhappy with certain edits that had been made after the sale, reportedly requested by Steven Spielberg, a staunch liberal. Oldman, a conservative, claimed that a once politically balanced screenplay had been tweaked just enough that in the final product, the Democrats come off as heroes, while the Republican come off as evil and manipulative. And here I thought both sides were equally evil and manipulative.

It has been three weeks since the untimely death of the Vice-President. President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) is searching for a worthy successor, but in the Washington political climate, the best man doesn't get the job, the best politician does. When his first choice is put out of the running after a minor scandal, Evans decides he wants to nominate Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), a senator, but more importantly, a female. Certain parties in Congress aren't too happy with the idea of putting a woman into office, and Congressman Shelly Runyon (Oldman) takes it upon himself to see that she doesn't get confirmed, even if it involves attacking her personal life.

For the majority of the movie, The Contender is a compelling political thriller. It certainly doesn't measure up to the greats like All the President's Men, but I found the questions it dealt with very interesting, especially in light of the whole Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. What bearing does a politician's personal life have on their duties in office? It is certainly a difficult question. On one hand, some argue that personal choices don't matter as long as the candidate represents the will of the people. On the other, many believe that personal choices reflect on personal values, and thus play a very important role in assessing the trustworthiness of an elected official. The Contender attempts to attack these issues head on in a nonpartisan, balanced way. The villains aren't all Republican (Christian Slater plays a wormy freshman Congressman willing to betray his party to gain clout), and the Democrats certainly aren't deified (Jeff Bridges' president displays somewhat questionable ethics in several scenes).

Unfortunately, I found the end of the film to be very trite. In a sense, it undercut the entire exigence of the film. My problems with the ending had nothing to do with my own political leanings; I am just speaking in terms of the film itself. I feel the writer took the easy way out, destroying the subtle moral dilemma that should have been the main focus of the piece. Instead, everything is wrapped up with a big speech and triumphant music, with the heroes and villains clearly identified. The chosen ending will surely alienate half of the audience, and even those who aren't troubled by the pui8olitics may leave with a sour taste in their mouth as well. I can certainly see why Oldman was unhappy with the final cut, seeing as he didn't sign on as Snidely Whiplash.

Problems with the narrative aside, there is still a lot to like about The Contender. Joan Allen is amazing in one of her best performances yet (Oscar¨ nomination and all). She perfectly embodies the restrained, proud aspects of Laine, as well as her softer, motherly side. Gary Oldman, despite his protests, comes off as a very human adversary. I was intrigued by his character's justification for opposing the Laine Hanson nomination, and I wish he had been granted a more fitting, respectful final scene. Jeff Bridges was also nominated for several awards for his presidential turn, but I honestly wasn't impressed with his work here. He isn't bad, but his final speech really made me want to gag (although that could've been the score). I thought the best on-camera president of 2000 was Bruce Greenwood as JFK in Thriteen Days, but sadly, Oscar¨ seems to have disagreed with me.

The Contender was the pet project of former film critic Lurie. I must say, this is an impressive outing for the director. The writing is, for the most part, very strong, and the direction is top-notch as well. The large majority of the film shows a remarkable level of restraint and a reluctance to trivialize the issue at hand. I wish I could've seen the original cut, before the rumored cut.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: DreamWorks discs are always difficult to review because they are almost always near perfect. The Contender is certainly very nice looking. Colors are accurately represent the director's intent. At times, they may look a bit dull or unsaturated, but it is invariably due to some sort of stylistic device, such as dramatic lighting or a lens filter. Due to these techniques, the image appeared somewhat soft at times, but I attribute that totally to director's intent. Black level and shadow detail are both perfect; I am always impressed by the rich, deep blacks on DreamWorks releases. The print used to strike the transfer was flawless, with no scratches or marks and very little film grain.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: DreamWorks has seen fit to include both DD 5.1 and DTS tracks on this release, proving that dynamic sound has a place in dialogue-driven movies. Yes, for the most part, this is a dialogue heavy film, but the 5.1 soundtrack still really enhances the viewing experience. I had the opportunity to sample both the DTS and DD tracks, but I could not detect any difference between the two, so I will comment on them as one.

Most importantly, the dialogue is very nicely represented, always sounding very natural and clear. The score takes full advantage of the entire surround set-up, filling the surrounds and the extremely wide front soundstage. There is nice separation between the surrounds, adding much to the atmosphere of the film. This is especially impressive considering how basic tracks with no action scenes usually sound.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
10 Deleted Scenes
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Rod Lurie and actress Joan Allen
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:09m:10s

Extras Review: While it isn't billed as a Signature Series disc, The Contender features some very illuminating supplements and a lot of input from the director.

A 20-minute featurette goes beyond the usual fluffy behind-the-scenes and actor quotes and actually highlights the goals of The Contender in terms of the historical genre of the political thriller. It was nice to see such great films as All the President's Men and The Manchurian Candidate recognized as the inspiration for The Contender.

Even better is the screen-specific commentary with director Lurie and actress Joan Allen. I actually wasn't looking forward to it after my first viewing of the film, but it was definitely worth the effort. The two speak animatedly about their work on the picture, and there is hardly a minute of dead space between them. There are some very entertaining anecdotes about Lurie's interaction with Steven Spielberg, as well as some talk about the controversy surrounding Gary Oldman's feelings on the finished work. Definitely take the time out to enjoy this one!

Ten cut scenes are presented in finished form, with optional commentary from Lurie. Most of these are very brief (the total running time for the section is 12 minutes), but they are nevertheless all interesting, which usually isn't the case with deleted scenes. I was particularly drawn to two scenes that deal more overtly with the atheism of Joan Allen's character. I find it hard to believe that America would readily accept a vice-presidential candidate who was not only a woman, but an atheist as well. It was interesting to hear Lurie's rationale for cutting the scenes.

Rounding out the disc are the standards like the trailer, cast bios, and production notes.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

For the first 2/3 of its running time, The Contender is an engrossing, complex political thriller. It asks some very complex, relevant questions and offers no easy answers. Unfortunately, the film really falters in the last half-hour. The theretofore balanced, intelligent screenplay takes the easy way out and undercuts the strides made earlier in the film. I definitely recommend a rental, if for no other reason than to revel in a brilliant Joan Allen performance and sample the in-depth supplements DreamWorks has included.


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