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The Contender

Director: riter: Rod Lurie
Cast: Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman, Christian Slater, Sam Elliot, William Petersen, Phillip Baker Hall, Saul Rubineck

(Dreamworks; 2000)

Let's Talk About Sex, Maybe

Some 35 minutes into his Grand Jury testimony of August 1998 (yes, it has been two years), Bill Clinton complains bitterly about the media tactics of Paula Jones’ attorneys and remarks: “I’ve been the subject of quite a lot of illegal leaking.” Leaking, both semiotic (his infamous “it depends what you think ‘is’ is”) and seminal (a dab on Monica’s blue Gap dress), became part of an intensive national debate about ideal definitions of the personal and the political, one that worked to separate the body politic from the embodied politician.


As a post-Monicagate Clintonian fable, The Contender churns through the debris of our national fascination with the personal and political, and the leakage between the two. Two-term Democratic President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) — whose gusto for the White House kitchen offerings is a bare disguise for Clinton’s rapacious desire — is engaged in a search for a replacement for his recently deceased Vice-President. Passing over the obvious choice of Virginia Governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), Evans decides to secure his legacy by nominating a woman to the position, Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), an avowed anti-gun, atheistic, pro-choice migrant from the Republican side of the aisle. Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman Shelly Runyon (executive producer and real-life conservative Gary Oldman recycling the best bits of his Fifth Element performance as a sniveling stooge) decides to block Hanson’s confirmation. After rumors about sexual dalliances during her college sorority days circulate around a gang-bang photograph posted on the Internet, the political muck-racking takes place on terrain made familiar by both Clinton and the Clarence Thomas hearings. While Hanson’s voting record and personal life (especially her reproductive choices) become the object of intense scrutiny, she declines to answer the rumors about her sexual life, vowing (somewhat cryptically) that she “won’t address issues of sexuality,” and asserting that a discussion of her sexual history is “simply beneath her dignity.” Faced with mounting (sorry) pressure from both sides to admit to the truth of that history, Hanson’s maintains that this is a private issue, irrelevant to her role in what the calls the “cathedral of democracy.”


When it comes to politics, however, Joan Allen seems more of an atheist. A self-identified political newbie, she researched the role by talking to real-life female senators who,unsurprisingly, as fellow members of the power-elite, attested to the relatively “level playing field” of senatorial politics. After playing a number of women stymied by sexual subordination and historical circumstances (in Pleasantville, The Ice Storm, even Nixon), Allen’s opening scene in The Contender — where she has sex on her office desk with her husband — marks something of a turning point in her career. Writer-director Rod Lurie, however, is staying a course of his own design. The Israeli-born son of a famous political cartoonist,West Point-educated Lurie is a former film critic for Los Angeles Magazine, where his acerbic reviews often got him into hot water with the studios (he once called Danny DeVito a “testicle with arms” — Warner Brothers banned him from screenings for a year). His first feature, last year’s Deterrence, starring Kevin Pollak and Timothy Hutton, concerned a Jewish Vice-President’s ascension to the Oval Office after the death of the President: clearly he has a favorite political subject.


While it is reminiscent of the ‘70s political potboiler — like All the President’s Men, The Candidate, and The Parallax View — and even further back to 1962’s indictment of the political nomination process, Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent, The Contender is even more closely related to ‘90s films that celebrated the soft political underbelly of American liberalism like The American President, Dave, and Bulworth. Part of a media landscape that includes NBC’s The West Wing and New Line Cinema’s Thirteen Days — a tribute to Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis with Kevin Costner in the title role (you’re no Jack Kennedy!) — The Contender is in familiar company. So familiar, in fact, that we take its politics for granted. Hanson mentions that the Supreme Court is stacked with right-wingers (so we can assume that George Dubyah wins in November) and we know that President Evans is in his sixth year in Office. Add it up (how’s that for “fuzzy math”?), and it’s clear that the film takes place some 10 years in the future, which begs the obvious question: what has changed in American life and politics? What’s the world look like in 2010? Though we search for context (like, er, how did the athiestic Hanson ever get to be a Republican in the first place?), we get extraordinary little. Maybe it doesn’t much matter since liberalism provides a trenchant metanarrative for the film’s connection with our own time. The glaring absence of any significant exposition regarding the political situation at the time of the film attests to the ubiquity of Clintonism and the ascendancy of the New Democrat: though President Evans seems to be complete fantasy (did we send an unmarried man to the White House?!), we get warm and fuzzy in recognizing our Bill in Bridges’ wacky parody.


With the entertainment industry contributing to Democratic National Campaigns at double the rate of its Republican backing (and at twice the rate of its 1996 Democratic contributions), the notion that Hollywood is in bed with the Dems is part of the accepted logic of these political times. Indeed, director Rod Lurie worked in New York for Al Gore’s 1988 campaign and all the three Dreamworks head-honchos — Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen — are longtime Democratic Party contributors. Attesting to The Contender‘s liberal democratic prerogatives, executive producer Oldman has publicized his disdain for its final cut, which he claims paints the Republican Runyon as a zealot with no shades of gray, just in time for the U.S. national election, no less. In The London Times, Oldman’s manager and fellow producer of The Contender, Douglas Urbanski, calls the film an “almost Goebbels-like piece of propaganda.” But it’s confused propaganda and there’s more to Runyon than Oldman admits. The character comes across as a right-winger riven with contradiction (a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Henry Hyde, I guess): what self-respecting bible-thumping anti-choice zealot would also support hate-crime legislation?


The film is confused on more that just that score, however, as it succumbs to a libertarian advocacy for individuated privacy rights rather than take the risk of suggesting that sex is always a public issue. While the personal/political conundrum has existed since the inauguration of U.S. democracy (Hamilton notes in the Federalist papers that impeachment hearings are an “inquest into the conduct of public men”), the alignment of the personal, the private, and sexual conduct has played a major role only relatively recently in campaign politics. What such an alignment does is focus on sex as an issue for the private sphere alone, fully defusing the progressive potential of sex (and speech about it) as a radical political and public act. Hanson’s “principled” stand to keep her sexual history private is a bitter acknowledgment of how the Lewinsky affair made sex a hysterically public issue. What Hanson refuses to engage with by the act of her silence is the very public issue of sexuality, the social, cultural and economic biases that normalize some sexual acts and demonize others. Surely she didn’t become a politician just for the snazzy suits or the high-budget dinner/fundraisers?


The film’s budget itself is on the low side for Hollywood. At $9.5 million, The Contender was produced by a complex consortium of independents, financed by Munich-based Cinerenta, and picked up for distribution rights by Dreamworks, the first time the studio has picked up a completed feature for distribution alone. Not completed enough for the boss, however: Clinton-buddy Spielberg did give Lurie some key editing suggestions. A by-now apocryphal story, repeated in an array of print and TV interviews, tells how Spielberg suggested music to underscore Allen’s key speech in the film. After Lurie pointed out that the music would clearly delineate the film’s sympathies, expert moral tactician Spielberg said, “What’s wrong with what she’s saying? That’s what movies are about — endorsing our own beliefs.”


Which begs another question: what does The Contender believe in? That sexual conduct is a matter to be kept behind closed doors? Then what are we to make of Hanson’s bizarre confession to the President concerning the truth about what happened during her college days, as they share an intimate moment on the White House Lawn smoking cigars? In a moment that proves a cynical disregard for the abilities of the audience to identify with a character who reaches beyond conventional moralities about sexual propriety, in truly Spielbergian fashion, Lurie wields a blunt moral truncheon to beat his viewers into a recognition of and appreciation for the truth of Hanson’s past.


But maybe the film is interested in issues loftier than bizarre plot twists. So here’s another question: does The Contender believe that the “personal is political?” Once the rallying cry of the radical left, the phrase now powerfully signifies as a mantra for anti-big-government libertarianism that is a far cry from the second-wave American feminism that inaugurated it. Have a glance at the trailer-like frames that open the official website for the film (www.thecontender-thefilm.com), which switch between screen-images from the film and warnings about the compromises of privacy at home and at work. Interspersed between images of Oldman, Allen, and Bridges is information about a variety of libertarian privacy bugaboos: the growing electronic monitoring of employees, “Operation Echelon’s” mandate to collect all forms of personal information transactions, and the nefarious aims of the U.S. National Security Agency. The connection is clear: what is happening to Hanson could easily happen to you. But who exactly is being addressed here? Flattening distinctions and differences amongst people, libertarianism espouses a maverick disavowal of anything that might intrude into the sacrosanct private sphere. Though the subject of The Contender‘s protracted debate — sex — is simply a smokescreen and even though Hanson tells the President that she doesn’t smoke (either dick or cigars, what’s the diff?), she buys into the libertarian fantasy of maintaining both her privacy and even that of her nemesis. When Runyon’s wife reveals to Hanson a detail about their sexual history that would prove his hypocrisy, Hanson decides not to go after Runyon and blow wide-open a key public sex issue of this and future times. After all, Privacy is the cardinal virtue in her “cathedral of democracy,” and she’d rather ascend to its heights than to desecrate the altar. As the above plot points suggest, the film’s gender politics are also deeply ambivalent. Governor Hathaway’s indiscretion (another plot twist which neatly removes him from VP consideration and renders him little more than a foot-soldier in the big-dick grudge match between Runyon and Evans) seems to be a frenzied attempt to appease his nagging, power-hungry wife. And Congressman Runyon’s wife is locked away in the gloomy dungeon of suburbia (Allison Janney’s role as Colonel Fitts’ wife in American Beauty is the most obvious parallel), regretful about abandoning her familial dreams yet powerfully chastising him for neglecting his early political mandate; a flinty FBI agent, the model of craftiness and savvy throughout the film, is shown pitifully begging the President’s advisor (a gloriously de-mustachioed Sam Elliot) to spare Hanson. Most ambivalent of all, again, is Hanson’s final confession to the President about what really happened in the sorority house. Not content with the possibility that the audience might actually identify with a woman engaged in taboo-shattering sexual expression — her indiscretion is, after all, that she performed a public sex act — The Contender normalizes our heroine and in the process validates her worthiness as one. Post-Lewinsky, the film suggests that the American public is more concerned with the confession of sexual impropriety than the fact that it took place at all (if only Bill had told the truth!). As a liberal apologia for Clintonian leaking (semiotic and otherwise), the film delivers the confession to us, it heals our national trauma, and it restores Senator Hanson — in a magisterial speech given by Evans at film’s end — to what she is at the beginning of the film, an elected official who sometimes has sex in her office (with her husband, naturally), but knows to keep her office doors closed. In a national electoral climate so muted by a lack of substantial debate and engagement by the two major players, the possibility that The Contender might provide a provocative fix for political junkies is washed away along with Hanson’s alleged sins.

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