Monday, September 22, 2014

Rod Lurie | The Contender

by Douglas Messerli

Rod Lurie (writer and director) The Contender / 2000

I first saw Rod Lurie’s political film, The Contender, when it originally appeared in 2000, a period in which I was not yet writing film reviews. Seeing it again the other day on the TV Sundance channel I was faced once again with both its pleasures and failures. When the film first appeared in late October 2000, a great many reviewers saw the movie as a contender for the Academy Awards, and two of its stars, Jeff Bridges and Joan Allen were nominated for acting awards. But it retrospect, it seems clear that the movie was not destined for greatness.

Certainly the film begins well enough, with a sudden plunge of a car into the waters near where Governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), a Democrat from Virginia, is fishing with a male assistant. The Governor miraculously escapes the car, attempting—but alas failing—to save its other occupant, a woman friend who has accompanied him on the trip.

      His valiant attempt to save the woman has made him a kind of hero in the eyes of many, and he is a shoo-in, so some claim, to be President Evans’ (Jeff Bridges) Vice Presidential appointment to replace his former Vice President, who has apparently died in office.  When called to the White House, we can see Hathaway almost drooling with anticipation for his appointment; yet, somewhat inexplicably, Evans deflates the governor, explaining that he plans to extend his legacy in his second appointment by choosing a woman for nominee, Republican-turned-Democrat Senator, Laine Billings Hanson (Joan Allen) of Ohio.

     So far, so good, the film having interestingly mined two major political events for its subject matter: Kennedy’s accident at Chappaquiddick and Presidential Candidate Walter Mondale’s choice of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.

     Writer-director Lurie immediately takes these somewhat historical events into new territory, however, when those who oppose Hanson’s appointment, notably, Republican Representative Sheldon Runyon (Gary Oldman) and Democratic Representative Reginald Webster (Christian Slater), investigating Hanson’s background, come up with seemingly shocking pictures, revealing that, as a young college Freshman, Hanson had participated in an orgy, willingly, so it appeares, servicing several young frat boys. Although she has long been married and has a charming son, her sexual openness is apparently reconfirmed by her having begun an affair with her husband while he was still married to her best friend.

     With a kind of cold passivity that is not only slightly unbelievable but helps to make Allen’s character almost unbearably passive, Hanson, under the scrutiny of the House Judiciary Committee, determines to take the high road, refusing to discuss her private sexual life in any form, insisting that she is open to all matters political, which the sleazy Runyon and associates cleverly refrain from asking while insinuating through cynical denial that, not only is Hanson a whore, but that she has taken money for those sexual acts, opening her up to a charge of prostitution.

      The issue is an important one, particularly since Lurie’s script ties Runyon to Joe McCarthy-like tactics—even if that is a far reach, since McCarthy destroyed numerous careers and lives, while Runyon is only attempting to squelch one contender, much in the same manner—conservatives will claim—that the same body attempted to end Clarence Thomas’s judicial career. Yet it is hard to believe that, given the visual and testimonial evidence against Hanson which Runyon and his group have already leaked to the press, that any president, no manner how highly-principled—a quality which this fictional President seems not to have—would so calmly continue to support his nominee. Lurie’s script insists that were Hanson a male candidate, her long-ago indiscretions would be utterly ignored; but we know, given the dead-ended careers of several congressional and gubernatorial candidates (Edwards and Wieners* immediately come to mind, although, admittedly, their behavior occurred during their campaigns instead years previous to it. Even the not-so-saintly fictional Hanson votes to impeach Clinton, we discover mid-film, because of his “responsibility” for his sexual behavior) that sex is still a potent factor within the American consciousness. Lurie might have done better to explore that very fact: why is it that Americans are still so puritanical when it comes to their public figures’ sexual behaviors?

     Unfortunately, Lurie drops the whole issue by revealing that Hanson, despite her refusals to deny or admit her past sexual “deviancy,” was, in fact, innocent. Expected by her sorority sisters to participate in the orgiastic celebrations, she has refused to go along, leaving the event even before it had begun. The pictures held by Runyon and, now, by the media are of another woman; and the rumors about Hanson’s own participation are, as she puts, “urban legend.”

     Not only is this a cop-out, I would argue, but it renders Evans’ moment of rising to greatness by refusing Hanson’s resignation quite meaningless, particularly since he has also discovered, through his own back-street investigations that Runyon’s favorite, Hathaway has paid his woman companion to join him in the drowning so that he might be able to save her—an action that has turned him from a potential hero into an obvious criminal.

     Runyon is politically outed in front of the entire legislative body, and, presumably, goodness and wisdom has been revealed to all. Not even Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington provided such a lame example of political majesty.

     What if, a little voice in my head keeps asking, the Vice Presidential candidate had really participated in and enjoyed the orgy in which she has wrongly purported in having been involved? What if she had actually committed adultery? Would that have meant that she was any less of a significant candidate, politically speaking, for the job?  We all know, of course, that such actions would have led to the contender’s immediate dismissal and, likely, the end of her career. Certainly, the uplifting message of Lurie’s fable would have become impossible. Just as Runyon perpetually twists truth throughout this tale, so too has the writer and director, who has made it easy for us to buy into this contender’s right to be a winner. Even Gore Vidal’s President in the author’s his creaky stage drama, The Best Man, was forced to make a compromise. While Lurie’s complacent Evans becomes an immediate hero, by saving the woman who, politically-speaking, nearly drowned. That nagging voice, however, will not go away: is Evans really any different from Hathaway? Well, yes, the writer has made it far easier for him to save the gal and win the public adulation which all politicians obviously seek out. And so too has Lurie pretended to create a feminist hero only so that he, like a macho-hero, can save her from drowning.

Los Angeles, September 21, 2014

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2014).

*New York Democratic Representative Anthony Weiner resigned was forced to resign from Congress after texting a suggestive photo of himself to a woman following him on Twitter. Another controversy erupted when he texted to another woman during his New York mayoral race.

     Former senator from North Carolina and Vice Presidential running mate for John Kerry, John Edwards was found to be having an extramarital affair during his 2008 Senatorial campaign.

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