Lost in the Movies: The Contender

The Contender

The Contender is only 8 years old, but it's already a period piece. First and foremost it's about sexual politics and the politicization of private lives - not especially pertinent issues right now - but it's also about the way gender becomes politicized (or vice-versa) when judging leadership qualities. That is a pertinent issue, but in light of Hillary and Palin and the fascinatingly convoluted way culture wars have been playing out, the film's take on these matters seems somewhat simplistic. And when the film touches on other issues, it consistently favors those that are no longer a large part of the national discussion, and ignores those that are. If this all sounds critical, I should back off a bit. It's not the movie's fault that it hearkens back to the past (actually, I think a movie's "dated" qualities make it all the more interesting), and as a political thriller it's quite entertaining and engrossing. However, if its politics seemed somewhat obtuse in 2000, they now seem positively ridiculous.

The timeframe of the film is indeterminate. References to Clinton's impeachment would seem to place The Contender's present in the 21st century, and since its fictional President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) is nearing the end of his two terms, it's safe to say we're looking at a year no earlier than 2006. Then again, President Evans asks the Congress to "take us into the new millennium" with a female president, so any chronological determination is sketchy at best. If it is 2006, it's a 2006 without 9/11, Katrina, or Iraq, in which the economy is an absolute non-issue and social issues still hold sway.

In this alternate universe, President Evans is appointing a VP following the death of his previous number two. One popular choice is Jack Hathaway (William Peterson), a governor who was recently in the newspapers for attempting (and failing) to save a drowning woman. But Evans prefers Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), a senator, Republican-turned-Democrat, and, yes, a woman. This raises the ire of fire-breathing right-winger Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), a buddy of Hathaway's, who believes the choice to be little more than affirmative action. He vows to fight back hard in the confirmation hearings and soon sexual allegations from Hanson's past are being dredged up - she refuses to "dignify" allegations of a college gang bang with any response and soon the inquisition is on.

The Contender's political concoctions are weird to say the least. The film obviously comes from a liberal perspective, but makes half-hearted attempts to offer bipartisan concessions and nuances. One such compromise is making Hanson an ex-Republican, but the conceit appears absurd. She is actually far to the left of not only the squishiest Rockefeller Republican but most members of the Democratic Party. Not only pro-choice (as are many moderates in the GOP), she wants to see guns completely banned (or taken "out of everyone's home" as she nicely puts it), the death penalty abolished, and calls religion a "fairy tale," proudly proclaiming that she's an atheist. Yep, sounds like a political winner to me.

While the movie concedes economics (it bizarrely makes the Democratic Hathaway a proponent of flat taxes) and the military (Hanson would appear to be a defense hawk, though she frames the use of force exclusively in terms of genocide prevention), it yields no ground on the social issues. When Runyan discusses Hanson's views on abortion, he ends up screeching into the microphone about how she supports murder, which seems out of character for his generally passive-aggressive congressman. But even he gets a softened edge in one spot - during a bizarre midnight rambling at the kitchen table, his wife touts his support of a hate-crimes bill. No reason is given why this textbook conservative would support the federalization of hate crimes, so it feels like the filmmakers desperately throwing him a bone, but it's a nice thought.

What's notably absent is any sense of Republicans or Democrats representing certain economic issues. There's no surer sign that the movie exists in the Clinton 90s, when a Democratic president signed welfare reform, balanced the budget, declared "the era of big government is over," and the most pressing national issue was whether he got head in the Oval Office. The movie takes itself very seriously, and even gives the president a grandstanding oration at the end, but in retrospect its scope seems rather petty. Universal health care, the global warming crisis, the growth of debt and financial insecurity, the rising competition from China, threats to national security - nary a peep. Instead we get the NRA's bogeyman, proud declarations of atheism, and a few scarce words of good-government blather. I'd raise a glass and say "those were the days," except that the former issues were there for anyone who cared to pay attention, and hence the movie only reminds me of our own national stupidity.

Of course, there is one exceptional issue at stake in the nomination of Laine Hanson, and that is her gender (though only an era as lazily comfortable with itself as the late 90s would this be solely front and center). Will she be treated as an equal, or judged by a different standard? The movie places the persecution card where one would expect it to be lodged: the Republicans attack Hanson mercilessly, sometimes tackling her gender head-on (Runyan asks her whether she'd take a maternity leave as president, which strikes me as a fair query if she took time off from the Senate for same), at others being slyly misogynist (Hanson claims that if she were a man, no one would care about a supposed gang-bang and given Bush's fraternity hijinks, one is inclined to agree).

But the past year has shown us a far trickier - and more interesting - minefield. The Democratic primary didn't merely exacerbate tensions between men and women - it touched on issues of race, gender, and the relation between the two. In other words, nobody could get off easily saying they and they alone were the victim of unfair persecution. And then, this fall, it was the Republicans who chose a woman for the national ticket, raising fresh questions about sexism. Suddenly it was the GOP hiding behind political correctness every time someone criticized Palin and, at the same time, some liberal Democrats found themselves questioning Palin's motherly instincts - accepting the vice-presidency despite having a pregnant teenage daughter and a newborn with Downs Syndrome. And, given the former situation, it was conservative Republicans who shrugged at a youngster's fornication, slapping a "Shit Happens" bumper sticker next to the Jesus fish on their SUV.

All of this thorny crossfire makes The Contender, for all its confused attempts at bipartisanship, seem a bit one-dimensional. Gary Oldman apparently agreed with that assessment, decrying the final cut for making his character too much of a villain - though with some of his sniveling it's hard to see how he wasn't in on the joke. But the movie's heart is in the right place even if 8 years hindsight has made the film seem rather narrow. Anyway, despite her somewhat off-putting self-righteousness, I'd rather see Laine Hanson in the White House than Jackson Evans. Jeff Bridges enjoys the role, chewing the scenery, and exerting as much power as he can, but the president is a blowhard and a demagogue, standing before a joint session of Congress to publicly scold one member of the House. Yet at the same time, given its lapses into prickly self-righteousness and confused ideology, the movie ultimately benefits from his selfish power-grabs and egotistical manipulation. If nothing else, at least this president knows what he's doing.


Jason Bellamy said...

Good analysis. I remember liking this film well enough, but sadly only three elements remained in memory before you stoked the embers with this post:

1) Wasn't Bridges' president always eating something? Trying to stump the kitchen with extravagant orders or something?

2) There's a scene where Allen's character is shooting baskets in a gym. Pathetic.

3) The film ends with her running through Arlington Cemetery. Awkward.

All that said, this reminded me:

(Hanson claims that if she were a man, no one would care about a supposed gang-bang and given Bush's fraternity hijinks, one is inclined to agree).

I thought the timing was odd. Here she's saying all this persecution is happening because she's a woman, and yet two years before the movie's release the Lewinsky stories hit the press. So apparently sex scandals do matter, regardless. (And we've seen even more evidence of this lately.)

Ah, the days when the biggest problem of our president was his raging hormones.

Joel Bocko said...

Yes, President Bridges was a man of overwhelming appetities - I thought his gregarious, overbearing nature was probably a reference to LBJ and also (somewhat) to Clinton.

You have a point about the Lewinsky scandal, although I'd say that's something that happened while Clinton was in office; whereas Allen's activities, presumably like Bush's fraternal hijinks, happened when she was in college. But yes, there is some weirdness there, as with the movie as a whole (incidentally, her character voted to impeach Clinton - but on the grounds of a technicality no one had in mind during the actual impeachment proceedings. Yet another way the movie has its cake and eats it too - simultaneously endearing and exasperating.)

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