Tuesday, 20 January 2009

On watching “The Contender”

Sydney's Channel Ten HD showed a repeat of The Contender tonight: surely the film from 2000 about which I'm most ambivalent.

The plot is pure liberal self-indulgence: the sex scandal Democrats wished they would have, in an alternative-history Naughties, with a post-Clinton president whose vice-presidential nominee is targeted with a smear campaign; rather than the sex scandal they actually did have, in the real Nineties, with Bill Clinton ... well, you know. The film, and its writer/director Rob Lurie, were kidding themselves at a fundamental level.

And yet the acting is glorious: three almost flawless interpetations from the principals Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman, and Joan Allen; sly, larger-than-life scenery-chewing from Sam Elliot as the chief of staff; and pert, pony-tail-swinging scenery-chewing from Kathryn Morris as an FBI agent. Any one of those parts is worth the price of admission just by itself ... and have Bridges, Oldman, or Allen ever been in a film where they weren't better than the material?

They are certainly better than this material. (This is not a new point: the NYT review at the time said as much.) The grandstanding is quite insupportable: “have you no decency, sir” gets re-aired; and the credits, preposterously, dedicate the film “to our daughters”. But let us be clear about the background to this: the real Democratic president in the nineties was exposed as a sexual aggressor, a selfish user, and a bit of a clown. I would have voted for him, as did the American people and (in the end) the Congress --- and he is prodigiously gifted --- but the guy is a flake who squandered his talents. This is what really happened, and that matters. Fantasising about an über-principled female VP-designate who is (unjustly) tarred with the same brush does not wipe the stain away.

In related news: While I have long ago forgiven Joan her face-lift, a distressing rumour reaches me that a remake or sequel of TRON is in the offing. Say it isn't so, Jeff. Please. I loved TRON, but surely you should let it rest.

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