The Contender (2000)
Written & Directed by Rod Lurie
Senator Laine Hanson has been nominated as the new vice president in the wake of the previous office holder’s death. Like all presidential nominees, the Legislature exercises its advise and consent policy with hearings. Congressman Sheldon Runyon, chair of the House Judiciary, has made it his mission to take down Hanson publicly for a multitude of reasons. She is, after all, a Democrat to his Republican, but made even worse is that she is a former Republican who switched parties mid-stream. Her beliefs in upholding a woman’s right to choose was a catalyst for her political conversion, and now Runyon wants her to suffer. He enters into a deal with members of both parties in Congress, as well as a runner-up for the nomination, with plans to humiliate Senator Hanson with a scandalous revelation from her past.
Writer/director Rod Lurie makes no excuses, he made this film as a direct response to the Clinton impeachment trial and surrounding Monica Lewinsky scandal. Lurie sought to create a feminist movie that could show his daughter there was hope for women in the upper echelons of politics. The lurid exploitation of women from men in both political parties was at a crescendo at the time and sadly is an ongoing problem despite us being twenty years out from these events. Lurie also noted that Joan Allen has a reputation as playing the supportive wife worried about her husband and he wanted to give her a role that wasn’t about being in that role. Instead, Allen’s husband in the film is asked to step back because the president wants Hanson to show her independent strength in these hearings.
The Contender is most certainly a condemnation of the male sexual double standards in politics. In an almost never-ending parade of scandals, we see men in positions of power being revealed as engaging in extra-marital affairs and salacious daliances. Moreover, honestly, as long as the encounters are consensual on both sides, then it isn’t any of our business, as long as these affairs don’t affect their ability to serve the voters. However, as Lurie points out, women’s sexual proclivities are grounds for a severe questioning, primarily by those very men mentioned above. One real-world example is that of Tennessee’s own Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a strong anti-choice proponent and dyed in the wool conservative Christian who was revealed to have pressured his wife AND his mistress into having abortions. He has faced no tangible consequence and still holds his seat.
At one point in the hearings, Runyon begins a line of questioning about Hanson’s ability to serve in the office of vice-president if she were to become pregnant again. Lurie is touching upon the double standard with which our society views parenting. A man becoming a father is expected to have no bearing on his ability to continue doing his job while a woman becoming a mother is seen as slamming on the breaks of her career. The issue is so often viewed through the lens of parentage being burdensome to the mother, but there is also the question of why a father isn’t expected to bond with his newborn child.
The Contender raises some excellent questions and has terrific actors playing out these tense debates. However, it falls into the same trap I have seen so often during this marathon. The final scene is a triumphant and condemning speech given by the president (played by Jeff Bridges). He admonishes Congress into voting for Hanson because of how important it is not just for his legacy but for the United States of America. This is all played out with the light tapping of drums in the background and distant horn. This musical motif has been a common element in these American political films, and so too has been the great speechifying moment of the President in the movie’s conclusion.
These are the hallmarks of propaganda. We have iconic imagery: a handsome white male president standing tall and advising his people while an American flag waves in the background. The music mentioned above. There’s always some keywords included in the speech, references to the Constitution. It’s hard to figure if this is all laziness and falling back on cliche or serious propagandizing (or maybe a little of both). When played straight these aspects feel forced and hollow, but if played with a wry grin we venture into the realm of satire, and they are suddenly recontextualized.
The Contender is a fine film but fails to deliver on the punch it was building towards. The script finds a way to have its cake and eat it too on the Hanson scandal. The Puriticanal fear of adventurous sex is still present even in a film that purports to be a feminist condemnation of sexual double standards. Joan Allen is wonderful, and if anything Lurie managed to accomplish what he set out to do, giving this actress a role worthy of her talents.