The Contender

THE CONTENDER REPLAYS THE CLINTON TAPES
When President Clinton was asked whether he had an extramarital affair, was the question itself proper? This is the conundrum subliminally posed in The Contender, written and directed by Rod Lurie, who has improved greatly from the misspelled and misfired Deterence (2000) by cloning the classic Advise and Consent (1962). President Jackson Evans (played by Jeff Bridges), a Democrat, is considering various nominees for Vice President after the death of the elected Vice President. The press clamors for Senator Jack Hathaway (played by William Petersen), whose nomination is assured because he has the support of Illinois Senator Shelly Runyon (played by Gary Oldman), the Republican slated to chair confirmation hearings. Evans instead nominates Ohio Senator Laine Hanson (played by Joan Allen), who would be the first female Vice President. In order to knock her out of contention, Hanson is rumored to have been involved in an orgy during college, and the media are complicit in transmitting innuendo without checking the facts. With doctored photographs and perjured testimony, Runyon tries to embarrass Hanson, who steadfastly refuses to answer any question regarding the alleged incident, which she knows to be untrue, because she believes that the question itself is improper, stating “It is simply beneath my dignity.” Moreover, she discerns a double standard, “If I were a man, nobody would care how many sexual partners I had in college; if it’s not relevant for a man, it’s not relevant for a woman.” In other words, women are called “whores” for conduct that is considered a mere “indiscretion” in men. When exculpatory emerges, however, Senator Hathaway is discredited, Congressman Runyon is exposed for framing Senator Hanson as a sexual McCarthyite, and she is confirmed after a dramatic speech by President Evans to a joint session of Congress. Clearly, the film is telling Washingtonians that that American democracy depends upon a debate on issues of national and international importance rather than gossip and rumors, for which the Political Film Society nominates The Contender for awards as best film raising consciousness of the need for greater democracy and improved human rights. Dedicated “To our daughters,” the film indicates that those involved in the movie are arguing that the time has come for qualified women to break through glass ceilings that prevent them from rising to positions of responsibility at the top of corporate and political ladders. The Contender demonstrates that men of both major political parties are quite capable of mean-spirited political chicanery to advance their own partisan, personal, and policy agendas, with the press willing dupes in mudslinging. In contrast, Vice Presidential contender Hanson (a Republican who switched to become a Democrat) remains above the fray, the only one who puts principles above the pursuit of power. The film has drawn criticism for pitting reactionary Republicans against progressive Democrats just before a close presidential election, but of course the producers are staunch Democrats. MH