Monday, February 20, 2012

My Favorite Movie President

For my money, there hasn't been a cooler American President in film, fictional or otherwise, than President Jackson Evans, as played flawlessly by Jeff Bridges in Rod Lurie's The Contender.

If you've seen The Contender (which many shockingly haven't - shocking, because I consider it to be one of the finest political thrillers... ever), then you know Bridges steals every single scene he's in, which is a tall order, given the splendid cast. (In addition to Bridges, the film features a never-better Gary Oldman, a should-have-won-the-Oscar Joan Allen, a remarkably shifty Sam Elliot, and a didn't-know-he-had-it-in-him Christian Slater.) In short, everyone who participates in the film puts in solid work, but no one quite flies off the screen like Bridges.

When we first meet him (in an ingenious, Citizen Kane-esque low-shot angle), Evans already has everything figured out. To explain: when the film begins, the Vice President has died due to old age, so a new VP is needed, quickly. A Republican Governor, Jack Hathaway, is considered an early frontrunner given his recent heroics of trying to save a woman's life after she drove her car off a bridge (she died, but it's the thought that counts). But Evans wants Liane Hanson (Allen) an intelligent, head strung Democrat who has everything going for her politically, except, of course, that she happens to be a woman. In order for Hanson to become VP, she must be approved by a board lead by king GOP snake Shelly Runyon (Oldman).

Needless to say, Runyon doesn't make things easy for Liane, which doesn't sit all too well with ol' Prez Evans. But no matter what happens (and plenty backstabbing acts of buffoonery do indeed happen), Evans is always aware. He's three steps ahead, silently mocking his oppressors as they try to keep up. This, mind you, doesn't fully reveal itself until the film's final moments, which makes the performance that much more ingenious.
President Evans is a cool customer, he always remains level headed and calm, until he doesn't. In one ferocious moment, Evans, clad in a West Point sweater, the kind you buy from your college store, let's out an extended, epic roar in the Oval Office in front of Hanson and his top aide/confidant Kermit (Elliot). He does this after receiving a bit of bad news, and instead of yelling at Hanson (who has done nothing wrong) and Kermit (who has done nothing wrong), he just fucking screams. If it sounds forced and out of place, that's because it very well should be. Not in these hands.

(Last summer, Lurie tweeted that the role of President Evans was written specifically for Paul Newman. So I asked him if that scream was scripted, as it seems like a very unNewman thing to do. Lurie tweeted me back saying the scream was "Jeff's idea," which makes me appreciate Bridges's performance even more.)

And this is just one scene that makes President Evans such a memorable character. Bridges gives him other fantastically fitting little quirks (he's ALWAYS eating, usually when no one else is; he blows smoke rings in front of his staff, because, you know, why not; and so on).
Now, if an actor is playing the President in a film, then they will certainly have to deliver an extended, pivotal speech at some point. And without harping and diving into (more) hyperbolic praise for Bridges's performance, let me just say that his speech at the end of The Contender is the very finest speech ever given by a Presidential character on film. I was tempted to embed the clip here, but that would be criminal out of context with the rest of the film. In a lesser year (meaning, a year when Benicio Del Toro didn't deliver perfection), Bridges would've won the Oscar he was nominated for without skipping a beat.

President Jackson Evans is a truly great performance tucked stealthily in a truly great film. The Contender, as it were, begs to be seen.


  1. Wow, yeah, I hadn't even heard of this movie. Jeff Bridges as President sounds like a definite win. I'll have to add this to the queue. Nice post, man.

  2. @Eric Thanks buddy, it's a really good movie. One that never got the reception it deserved.

  3. Replies
    1. I actually could give fuck all about American politics, so... nice try.