Joining the ranks of movie critics-turned-directors, Rod Lurie earned his Hollywood stripes by guiding Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges to Oscar nominations in only his second feature, The Contender (2000).
Lurie seemed to be destined for an entirely different profession when he opted to attend college at the prestigious West Point military academy. After graduating in 1984, Lurie served as a Combat Arms officer in the Army for four years. Finished with the military by the late '80s, Lurie turned to the movies, working as an entertainment reporter for the New York Daily News and a freelance magazine writer. Relocating to Los Angeles, Lurie wrote for Los Angeles magazine, published a book, and became the film critic for KABC radio in 1995. During his four years at KABC, Lurie met Joan Allen at an awards show and declared that he was going to write a screenplay tailored to her talents.
While still a critic, Lurie made a foray into filmmaking with the low-budget feature Deterrence (2000). A chamber thriller involving the first Jewish president and a possible nuclear strike on Iraq, Deterrence got little attention but it presaged Lurie's interest in political stories. Lurie then made good on his promise to Allen with The Contender, about a Democratic senator's embattled appointment to be the first female Vice President. Stepping down from his KABC post in 1999, Lurie rounded up a stellar cast to support Allen, including Bridges as the sly, shark-eating President and Gary Oldman as Allen's nefarious Republican nemesis. Distributed by Dreamworks after it was independently produced, The Contender attracted praise for the performances and criticism for the facile, potboiler sex-and-politics plot; the conservative Oldman publicly kicked up a fuss over the film's apparent "liberalization" at the hands of Dreamworks. Regardless, Allen earned a nomination for Best Actress, while Bridges (not Oldman) got a Supporting Actor nod.
Lurie subsequently got to use his West Point experience when Dreamworks hired him to direct the military prison drama The Last Castle (2001), starring Robert Redford as a jailed general (and West Point grad). Though Lurie convinced James Gandolfini to play the corrupt warden with the promise that Gandolfini would be an Oscar-friendly Salieri to Redford's Mozart, The Last Castle proved to be no Amadeus (1984) on its unimpressive release.