Thanks to movies like The American President and Thirteen Days, the corridors of American power are almost as familiar to cinema audiences as their own backyards. Watch enough movies about American politics and you'd probably be able to sketch your own tour map of the White House before you've even hopped on a plane.
Yet even the most hawk-eyed scrutator will still be left scratching their heads at some of the finer details of the Yank political system. For example, do you know what happens when a Vice-President dies mid-term? Well, watch The Contender and you will.
Of course, Rod Lurie's directorial debut isn't just a dry lesson in politics. Lurie keeps the proceedings brisk and accessible, guiding us through the selection process with a keen sense of what makes good, gripping drama - - for the first hour at least. He achieves this by hanging the plot on a pertinent poser: when will the US get its first lady Pres?
The casting of Joan Allen as the dark horse contender was Lurie's smartest move. Allen manages to infuse Senator Hanson with exactly the right balance of mature sexiness, finely-honed political savvy and concrete integrity for us to believe she could be in the running for the second-biggest job in the executive branch. When Hanson is forced to make tough decisions and is placed under tremendous psychological pressure, Allen is nothing less than persuasive.
The supporting players are just as impressive. As the bitterly ambitious Senator Runyon, Gary Oldman has transformed himself into a wiry fiftysomething runt who's so immersed in his own, small, political crusade against Hanson that it's hard to treat him as an out-and-out bad guy. On the lighter side, meanwhile, is Jeff Bridges as the Big P. This is very possibly a career-best from Bridges, who introduces some welcome comedy as a man who obviously revels in the benefits of being the world's most powerful leader, holding meetings in the White House bowling alley (who elected The Dude?) and insisting that his guests test out the Oval Office's excellent catering services.
Problem is, The Contender goes wrong in the last half-hour. All of a sudden we're presented with gaping plot holes and, most unforgivable of all, the sudden, clumsy introduction of a dialogue-drowning score which screams: "Be inspired you dozy mooks!" Yet Allen, Bridges and Oldman's combined talents are just enough to keep it on the right side of entertaining - - it's just a shame Lurie allowed his audience to have its patience so thoroughly tested.
An intelligent political drama which is dragged into the depths of dumbness by a monstrous soundtrack and a rapidly unravelling plot. However, a trio of spotless performances mean The Contender is flawed-but-enjoyable rather than unwatchable.