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The 36 Dramatic Situations: The Contender (2000) and Erroneous Judgment

Joan Allen The Contender
By  · Published on August 10th, 2010

This article is part of our 36 Dramatic Situations series.

For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by presenting a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th-century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today.

Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t sully our good name with false accusations of sexual impropriety.

Part 2 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Erroneous Judgment” with The Contender.

The Synopsis

Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) is nominated for the vice presidency mid-term when the current VP dies in office. Her future career is placed in jeopardy though when a video comes to light showing her engaged in extreme and potentially immoral sexual behavior during her college years. Hanson refuses to comment on the matter, declining to deny or confirm the accusation, on the grounds that her sexual activity is nobody’s business but her own. Her political enemies go on the attack, and even her supporters and the public at large begin to doubt her integrity.

The Situation

“Erroneous Judgment” – This situation requires three pieces including the Mistake (occurring organically without fault or through intentional malice), a Victim of the Mistake, and a Cause or Author of the Mistake (hereby known as the Guilty One). The Victim is falsely accused by the Guilty One which leads to mistaken judgment by others.

The potential Mistake here is found in the initial accusation and subsequent belief that not only was Hanson once involved in sexually “deviant” activity but also that it matters in regard to what she’s doing today. Hanson is the Victim who finds her name and reputation dragged through the sewer. The Guilty One (played brilliantly by an almost unrecognizable Gary Oldman) is a fellow senator who seizes on the incident in an effort to stop her from becoming Vice President. His sexist and misguided beliefs lead him to willingly ignore common decency and fair play and to amplify the initial mistake throughout the press, the public, and his colleagues.

The Movie

Rod Lurie’s film is a phenomenal thriller that manages to be suspenseful without a single gunfight, car chase, or life placed in jeopardy. It becomes a tense and exciting affair as we watch Hanson take a stand against growing odds based solely on principle. I know, it’s an incredibly old-fashioned idea for modern-day Hollywood, but Lurie and friends have turned it into a below-the-radar classic. It also shines when it comes to the acting on display from almost every player. Allen and Oldman are amazing and as focused as always, but equally impressive are Jeff Bridges as the president, Sam Elliott, William Petersen, Mike Binder, Philip Baker Hall, and (yes, even) Christian Slater.

The accusation here is made intentionally out of greed (paycheck from the tabloids) and then magnified and spread out of jealousy towards a rival (Oldman’s senator has his eye on the VP spot too). The erroneous judgment laid down upon Hanson is dual-layered… the public and the audience are told they should care about something Hanson did over twenty years ago, and the main reason just may be that it matters most because Hanson is a woman.

Films that follow this particular dramatic situation can place the audience in either the shoes of the victim or those of the ones forced to make a judgment. The Contender falls into that latter category as the viewer is no more privy to the truth than the rest of the film’s characters. The movie forces you to form an opinion based purely on speculation, and even if you take the high road and claim none of it matters you’ll still find yourself making two choices. Do you believe the accusation? And should you even care care?

Bonus Examples: Rosewood, The Fugitive

Check out our entire series of 36 Dramatic Situations, 36 Movies.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.