The Contender

Rod Lurie began his career as a writer on film for various publications in the U.S., but as with so many before him, he had an idea for a script, the desire to direct, and the image of Joan Allen as the lead. That film has now come to fruition and is The Contender (2000), a political drama that arrives in the wake of investigations into President Clinton’s sexual exploits and the Republican Party’s efforts to discredit him as a result of his intimacies with women other than his wife. But The Contender also resonates within an Australian context, with the recent media scrum that descended upon ex-Democrats leader cum Labor party Ghost Who Walks, Cheryl Kernot, and an affair she had with a young man many years ago. The media’s focus on this relationship, complete with photos and gossipy headlines, successfully served to cast a pall over Kernot, and may indeed have contributed to the muted impact she has made on the political party she joined with such fanfare. Lurie’s film tackles such ethical questions, with the central focus of The Contender a valid and socially pertinent one: is a person’s sexual history and the decisions made away from, or far before, their assumption of public office subsequently fair game for their political opponents and the media to expose and exploit? This is rich material, and in many ways a position worthy of scrutiny; such character assassination has become the norm in politics, a recognised, effective method of removing or at least discrediting an opponent. The Contender tackles this scurrilous practice of muckraking for political gain, and in doing so posits Vice Presidential candidate Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) against the conservative Congressman, Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman). What this film promises is a mature, if potentially didactic perspective on political ethics and personal freedoms. This could be powerful stuff, but in the hands of director Lurie, The Contender ultimately fumbles the ball in a most egregious fashion, and does so as to almost run counter to the very argument the film attempts to make.

The Contender follows the fortunes of Laine Hanson, who is proposed by President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) for Vice President after the position is left vacant following the death of the current second-in-command. The machiavellian Republican Runyon who heads the pre-investiture commission into Hanson’s appointment, digs for dirt to smear the Presidential nominee. Ultimately he unearths a series of explicit photographs of Hanson in her youth, depicting her involvement in a group sex situation at a college frat party. Yet contrary to expectations, she refuses to enter into any discussion of this incident from her past; she will not confirm nor deny the reports or the photographs, feeling such questions are not worthy of comment, which leaves the question of her involvement in the incident dangling, before the truth is revealed in the final moments of the film. The selection of Hanson, and the moral and ethical decisions made by parties on both sides of the political fence in confronting these allegations is set up with some skill, even with its disingenuous contrast in these opposing forces. Hanson appears polished, exact and in control, complete with caring husband William (Robin Thomas), a supportive father Oscar (Philip Baker Hall) and a young child with the requisite cute as a button demeanour. In the face of such humiliating and damaging accusations, she remains determined to maintain her dignity throughout by stubbornly sticking out her chin and dropping her eyes in a sort of passive/aggressive attempt to maintain her composure. She stands for a principle, a purely ethical position, and the narrative’s impetus relies on how successfully the ideals of one woman are able to stand up to the machinations of a man who lacks all that she possesses. Runyon, is, by matter of course, singularly unattractive (the bad wig placed on Oldman’s head never passes as authentic) and his wife Maggie (Irene Zeigler) is one of the first to turn on him when the heat is on. Yet faced with some juicy ammunition of her own, Hanson naturally refuses to stoop to Runyon’s level, and although this decision may be admirable, the maintenance of her pristine ethical position makes her a far less interesting character and more a self-righteous goody-two-shoes.

It’s a basic problem with Lurie’s script that the focus of the film is more a canonisation of Saint Laine and less an intimate look at a political Mary Magdalene, a woman with some complexity, some inconsistencies to draw the audience in. Instead, the charges of sexual adventure and immorality from her youth seem slight nothings when confronted with Hanson’s cast-iron goodness, and it thereby sanitises the very problem it aims to expose. There is a subsequent attempt to muddy her reputation further with the testimony of her husband’s first wife (Mariel Hemingway) but Lurie has already established such a perfect, blissful domestic environment for Laine and William that this fails to besmirch her character in the eyes of the audience either – clearly the two have a happy and loving relationship. Lurie is simply far too concerned with showing Hanson in a positive light, and this decision works to the detriment of the central theme of the film. The Contender sets itself up as an investigation into the accessibility of the private lives of people in public office: the public’s right to know the moral character of those they elect to positions of power. Yet Lurie denies us this debate by being so insistently one sided on the issue, demonising Runyon and coating Hanson in teflon, so that nothing disreputable can stick to her. Without the presence of the audience’s doubt in the strength and purity of her character, the issue loses its currency, and the potential for complex and divergent readings of the film are lost.

What does come as unexpected is the resolution itself, which seems determined to step up Hanson’s deification, and in doing so, cops out of all the clumsily handled but nobly intentioned sentiments it confronts along the way. Within the final fifteen minutes of the film, we are regaled with not one but two grand speeches, with the “ennobling music” (suggested by Spielberg (1)) rising and the camera swooping dramatically. Thus inspired by Spielberg, an integral part of the Dreamworks team, Lurie opts for the didactic, inspirational oratory so typical of his mentor’s work, the sort of speechifying made great by Martin Luther King and demeaned and cheapened by recent Hollywood product. The Contender utilises these speeches as a self-conscious display of its agenda. It renders the film less a critical analysis of political tactics and the rights of the individual in public life, and more an opportunity to drive home a specific moral standpoint in a public forum.

These sermons are risible enough, but the subsequent discussion between Evans and Hanson is one of the more outrageous ideological backflips in recent cinema. With the strength of the story reliant on the principle at stake and the insistence that Hanson’s alleged activities are irrelevant to her ability to fulfil her role as Vice-President, the final moments renege this ideological position. Once the truth behind the allegations is revealed, there is a sense that Lurie has taken a step back from the original ideals he has espoused throughout the film, and the conclusion suffers from its basic desire for safety and moral conservatism. Whilst The Contender wants to be hard hitting and provocative, a platform for higher ethical standards and a cleaner political system, it really remains appallingly conservative at heart, and refuses to demonstrate the courage of its convictions. The film clearly professes a liberal perspective in its adherence to the high moral ground, and in the President’s desire to elevate a woman to such a coveted and prestigious position not through a cynical attempt at vote grabbing but simply through her suitability for the role. Similarly Hanson’s efforts to stand up to the misogyny of Runyan and his supporters offer the potential for an active and engaging commentary on the role of women in the political system. But once the script forces a confrontation of the principle with the truth, it scurries like a mouse back into its hole and refuses to maintain the challenging, defiant stance it has proposed for the majority of the film.

Watching Allen, Bridges and Oldman mix it up is certainly the greatest pleasure this film holds – and they are all terrific. But the material they work with, and the mousy direction from Lurie doesn’t support the work they deliver. Oldman is forced into demon mode by the script just as Allen is forced into beatified purity; they become just too polarised in their characterisations so that they serve a function rather than offering contradictory or complex readings. Bridges pulls off a more nuanced role – he may uphold the stand Hanson takes but Evans is no cleanskin, and the undercurrent of his careful manipulation of the characters in the drama offers The Contender at least a little resistance to the bite. But the decisions Lurie has made as both script writer and director, the bland manicheism of the structure, the softly lit Hanson, the ragged, sweaty image of Runyon’s pate, and, worse, the dubious courage in the execution of its ethical position hamper the film’s efforts to substantiate the valid points it tries to make. No finer example of Lurie’s lack of foresight in the execution of this film exists than when Evans endorses Hanson to Congress, offering a fine speech on ethical standards, to which the entire Congress rises to applaud, including, of course, every Republican Congressperson in the room who have fought tooth and nail against her nomination for the position. Indicative of his ultimate choice for simplicity over complexity, or even for that matter, over good sense, Lurie opts for the path most travelled, avoiding the more brave, less comfortable option, and that decision, unfortunately, makes all the difference. The intricacies of the plot, the red herrings and the questionable allegiances of various characters all help the film along to a certain extent but The Contender fails to add to an ethical discourse in any meaningful way. And this is significant, considering that we are lead to assume this was in fact the film’s primary goal. Political dramas in the past – films like All the Presidents Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976) or The Candidate (Michael Ritchie, 1972) or Mike Nichols’ recent Primary Colours (1998) have navigated an incisive and insightful path through American politics. The Contender wants to look at the mudslinging and sledging that occurs behind the scenes, but it is simply too afraid to get dirty.

The film itself has endured an interesting post-production roller coaster, with Lurie and star Oldman holding a very public debate over the merits and the handling of the film. Oldman, initially believing the film to be an even handed analysis of the Democratic and Republican parties, became dismayed at the apparent weighting towards Allen’s character by Lurie and Dreamworks. Firmly believing Runyon was by no means the villain of the piece, Oldman has stated boldly that: “Laine Hanson is insane. She doesn’t believe in God. She wants to make smoking a federal offense. She wants to ban handguns. Come on!” On the flipside, Lurie has asserted that Oldman suffers from a kind of thespic “Stockholm Syndrome”, whereby the actor has fallen under the spell of the character he has played (2). Ironically, Oldman’s objections to the film are perhaps not so far from the truth. Whilst believing his character to be the tragic victim of the film and the (Democratic) President and his proposed Vice “egomaniacal” and “insane” respectively, Oldman also bemoans the loss of balance in the film, the overstatement of the final title card “For Our Daughters”, the “cliché overkill”, and on these latter charges, he is correct. This is a film that poses some significant questions, some truly valid issues on the running of our governments, modes of conduct we are prepared to accept. But such questions are never answered in any concrete sense in The Contender, and the arguments it highlights get lost in a morass of overstatement and cowardice. There are great things to be found in this film, little kernels of ideas and insights that extend beyond the intrigue and ruthlessness of the world Lurie presents. But often these moments are drowned out by the overpowering score or the dramatic posturing of the script, or the sheer gutlessness of the denouement. The Contender wants to be a fighter and for a good half of the film it performs well, but finally, and in defiance of its initial purpose, it placidly sits down on the mat when the bell sounds for the final round.

Endnotes

  1. Tom Roston, “Strange Bedfellows”, Premiere, November 2000. p. 98
  2. Ibid.

About The Author

Mark Freeman is an academic in the Department of Film and Animation at Swinburne University. His most recent publication was in Digital Horror: Haunted Technologies, Network Panic and the Found Footage Phenomenon edited by Linnie Baker and Xavier Aldana Reyes. He is also an editor at Senses of Cinema and has interests in national cinemas, horror and reality television.