Former film critic Rod Lurie is addicted to a certain bit of annoying narrative trickery. In his first film, the military-political thriller Deterrence, the president (Kevin Pollack), while snowed in at a Colorado diner, finds himself in a game of nuclear brinkmanship with the Iraqis, who have a nuclear arsenal. Much drama ensues, but it turns out that the president has a very specific piece of knowledge about the Iraqi nuclear arsenal. He's just pretending that he doesn't. Odd fiction Which is to say, he acts as if he doesn't know this thing. His audience consists of his national security advisers, a couple of secret service men and a handful of Coloradans in the diner. He doesn't need to act as if he doesn't know. Who are the members of the audience going to tell? The only reason to maintain this odd fiction is that the picture falls apart without it.
In his new film, The Contender, which Roger Ebert, who should know better, has called a masterpiece, Lurie plays a similar sort of shell game with key elements of the storyline.
The plot revolves around the efforts of the president (Jeff Bridges) to appoint a senator (Joan Allen) as vice-president for the last two years of his term. As the confirmation hearings loom, it turns out that an evil Republican senator (Gary Oldman) has turned up a piece of film allegedly depicting the candidate participating in an orgy when she was a freshman at university.
It's a tremendously involved plot, like six episodes of The West Wing jammed into a two-hour package, though less elegantly directed. Of course, the president and the senator are both in possession of certain information about this piece of documentary evidence, but they act, even when alone, as if they don't know a thing.
It's a double whammy: first, the characters pretending that they don't know something when they do, and then, made excruciatingly obvious, a plot that hinges on the characters' refusal to pay any attention to the evidence of their own eyes. The face of the woman in the orgy film is hidden, but take a look at her body, then take a look at Joan Allen.
Anyway, it seems that Lurie is incapable of actually making his stories work without resorting to this kind of narrative shell game, which is a shame, because he does get good performances from his principals in both films. Here, he's got a high-powered cast, including Sam Elliott, Saul Rubinek, Philip Baker Hall and William Petersen as various politicos plainly enjoying a good gnaw on some tangy dialogue.
What Lurie doesn't realize is that the apparent premise of the film, the mechanics of scandal and character assassination on the highest political level, is actually more interesting than the relatively spurious thriller elements he keeps piling on as the plot chases its own tail into oblivion.
Ebert's comment about The Contender is indicative of what a sorry year this has been. Had it been released a year ago, no one would be calling it a masterpiece. It's not ready to play in the deep end with last year's amazing crop of films.