Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Contender

I recently showed "The Contender" (2000) in my film class. I haven't seen the film since it first came out, and I didn't recall especially liking it then, but I wanted to give it another shot. I have to say that it's both better and worse than I remembered.

The premise is that the vice president has died, and the president (a delightful Jeff Bridges) is looking for a replacement. Governor Jack Hathaway (William Peterson), who recently became a national hero for attempting to save a drowning woman, is clearly the inside favorite and would likely win swift confirmation, but the president wants Sen. Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) for the job. The film charts Hanson's confirmation hearings and her battles with conservative Rep. Shelley Runyon (Gary Oldman), who clearly has some issues with women in positions of power and also has an old axe to grind with the president. Rumors of Hanson's sexual past color the entire proceedings, and Hanson believes it is her job to not respond to those rumors at all.

On the plus side, the subplot about Gov. Hathaway is actually pretty good. It's an intriguing story about runaway ambition. What starts as a ploy by a politician to impress the president results in a young woman's death. The details of the plot unfold slowly and cleverly. It's all set within an environment of constant political gamesmanship, as so much of the story turns out to be part of an ongoing pissing match between the president and Rep. Runyon. Finally, the sexism encountered by Sen. Hanson as she seeks to be appointed to the vice presidency is a bit bald-faced but still pretty believable. And if you doubt that, recall the media's treatment of Hillary Clinton last year.

While the film deals with intrigue pretty well, however, it demonstrates profound ignorance about basic facets of American politics. During her confirmation hearings, for example, Gary Oldman accuses Joan Allen of condoning murder for supporting a woman's right to choose and basically says that any woman who has an abortion is a murderer. Even the Congress' most ardent opponent of abortion wouldn't state it in those terms. The usual tact is to describe women, rather patronizingly, as "misguided," not to call them murderers. There are other obvious flaws, such as the Senate president pro-tem being younger than the Speaker of the House, and the president giving an address to a joint session of the Congress in which he demands that they immediately vote on confirmation and calls for a roll call vote, as though he were a member of the Congress or something.

But the main problem is the character of Laine Hanson herself. She seems like some bizarre focus-grouped amalgam of issue stances that are vaguely popular in West L.A. Hanson herself sums up her beliefs:
I stand for a woman’s right to choose. I stand for the elimination of the death penalty. I stand for a strong and growing armed forces because we must stomp out genocide on this planet and I believe that is a cause worth dying for. I stand for seeing every gun taken out of every home, period. I stand for making the selling of cigarettes to our youth a federal offense. I stand for term limits and campaign reform.

And, Mr. Chairman, I stand for the separation of Church and State, and the reason that I stand for that is the same reason that I believe our forefathers did. It is not there to protect religion from the grasp of government but to protect our government from the grasp of religious fanaticism. Now, I may be an atheist, but that does not mean I do not go to church. I do go to church. The church I go to is the one that emancipated the slaves, that gave women the right to vote, that gave us every freedom that we hold dear. My church is this very Chapel of Democracy that we sit in together, and I do not need God to tell me what are my moral absolutes. I need my heart, my brain, and this church.
She is an avowed athiest, but the film treats her pro-choice stance as the controversial one. It's a bit ridiculous. Oh, by the way, she is a recent convert to the Democratic Party, having grown up a Republican, and she voted for Clinton's impeachment for some weird reason.

The film posits itself as some sort of feminist statement -- the end credits begin with the statement "For our daughters." That's all well and good, but if they wanted to make a feminist movie about politics, how about one in which a woman actually runs for office and wins, rather than getting appointed by a man? Also, the fact that Gov. Hathaway is goaded into increasingly ambitious behavior by his shrewish wife kind of undermines any progress this film makes for the representation of women in film.


Anonymous said...

She's not just an atheist, but she's a Senator (and a recent Republican) FROM OHIO who calls religion "a fairy tale" or something equally dismissive ON THE RECORD. Can you imagine even Barbara Boxer saying such a thing on the record, even if they believe it? There is one (!) "out" atheist in Congress, several years after this movie came out and he is Pete Stark who is not only from the Bay Area, but is famously cranky. He MIGHT say something like this if provoked.

Seth Masket said...

Yeah, it's kind of silly. She's pretty far out there for a Democrat. It's hard to imagine what a crappy Republican she was. Although she voted for Clinton's impeachment! And yet she was criticized for doing so by Runyon, another Republican, which also made no sense.

Relatedly, I asked my students if they thought this was a feminist film. One of them got it right, I think, when he said that it was a liberal man's version of what a feminist film should be. An actual feminist film, they said, might have involved a female president, and probably would have had less gang banging.