Starring: Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman
Director: Rod Lurie
Running Time: 126 mins
The Contender is an American film about a female senator who, after becoming the leading contender for US Vice President, becomes subject to invasive questioning and leaks about her personal life as political opponents aim to derail her confirmation.
For a film with such a passionate and important message, it’s really frustrating just how long The Contender takes to unlock its full potential. Admittedly, it’s an engaging watch throughout, but the film really struggles to captivate in its opening two acts, getting lost in an unnecessarily convoluted narrative web when the firm, direct messaging of its finale is all that it needed from the start.
So, it’s fair to say that The Contender is quite a slow-burning drama. For those who love to follow intricate political intrigue and Machiavellian manoeuvres behind the scenes in the highest seat of power in the land, this film is full of detail and twists, but it’s strangely dry in its execution.
With disappointing dialogue that’s neither witty nor particularly sleek, it really feels like the actors are mumbling their way through the first two acts of the film, and while their characters take strong, determined stances on different sides of the battle for power, the movie really doesn’t get that sense across well enough for the core dramatic tension to present itself from the start.
As a result, the complex web of alliances, lies and obscure motivations is frustratingly opaque, and difficult to really become engrossed in. That, coupled with the disappointing dialogue, makes The Contender a slow-burner that really doesn’t engender the intrigue and excitement it’s aiming for from the start.
However, this film is more than just a political thriller, and it should have shown so from far, far earlier on. As it proves in the final act, where Joan Allen’s vice presidential contender comes up against a stubborn and sexist politician who aims to bring her down, the film opens up as a passionate and moving dialogue on the role of women in politics, and the obstacles they face to stand on a level footing with men.
With a gripping account on the lengths that some will go to keep women out of high office for little reason other than their gender, as well as passionate turns from Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges on the side of equality, The Contender proves a rousing call to arms to stamp out the scourge of institutional sexism in government, and perhaps the most passionate and moving portrayal of the reality of women in politics of any film in the last twenty years.
That passion, combined with the film’s eye for detail and political insight, brings The Contender to a thrilling end, filled with palpable emotion and sobering drama. It speaks a worthy message with immense fervour, and shows its true potential as a stirring call for equality.
But if only it could have done that from the start. Engaging though it may be, the first two acts of The Contender lack that passion, that drama and that sobering relevance to the real world. As a result, the film is a mixed bag as a whole, though the brilliance of its exhilarating final act mustn’t be understated. That’s why I’m giving the film a 7.3 overall.