She’s a first-term senator from an electorally significant state. Her sharp legal mind and finely-tuned bullshit detector have made her a star in the Democratic party. Her opponents have accused her of sexual impropriety, charges she steadfastly refuses to dignify with a response. And as the choice of a folksy politico in the twilight of his career, she may become the next Vice President of the United States.
She’s Laine Hanson, the titular role of the 2000 political drama, The Contender. Played with steely grace by Joan Allen, Hanson is tapped for the VP spot by the affable President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) after the incumbent dies unexpectedly. Nominating Hanson is Evans’ swan song; his appointee will break the glass ceiling and, as he bellows in a speech before Congress, “serve in the highest level of the Executive.”
The Contender, written and directed by Rod Lurie, was released in October 2000, when the salacious details of the Starr Report — the result of Ken Starr’s ideologically-driven investigation into President Bill Clinton — were still fresh in the minds of the electorate, and a former vice president was positioned to ascend to the presidency. The film is part thriller, part political intrigue, and the kind of Capra-esque story that appeals to fans of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. Like that revered series, the world of The Contender is (sadly, in these times of a Trump presidency) an escapist one in which public servants actually serve the public, principles matter even when they’re inconvenient, and the Commander in Chief is the smartest guy in the room.
As the film opens, the smart money is on Virginia Governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen) to fill the vacancy. After a fortuitous but ultimately unsuccessful act of valor, his popularity skyrockets. But there’s something smarmy about Hathaway, with his false modesty and “Slick Willie” haircut. Evans informs him he won’t be getting the nod, adding, “You’re the future of the Democratic party, and you always will be.” He then blows smoke rings toward the stunned Hathaway, making for one of the more delightful moments in an often heavy-handed script.
Evans’ choice is Hanson, a senator from Ohio, daughter of the state’s former Republican governor, and once a Republican herself. Evans’ top adviser Kermit Newman (Sam Elliott, looking wonderfully Grinch-like without his signature ‘stache), has his doubts. “Even though she turncoated our way,” he cautions, “a turncoat’s a turncoat.” Nevertheless, Evans charges Newman with the task of ensuring a smooth confirmation for Hanson, who is now poised to be the Democrats’ new standard-bearer.
Hell-bent on stopping the confirmation is Sheldon “Shelly” Runyon of Illinois, who heads the congressional committee to advise and consent. Gary Oldman’s Runyon is an old-school Republican who has cast aside his principles in favor of the unscrupulous, power-at-all-costs credo of today’s GOP. Runyon’s venomous animosity toward Hanson is matched only by his condescension and hypocritical moralizing. Oldman disappears into the role of Shelly, rendering him almost sympathetic. At times, Runyon seems hollowed out by the new Republican politics of sleaze, and Oldman’s nuanced performance keeps the congressman from turning into a caricature.
Runyon dispatches a dastardly duo of “private citizens” to dig up dirt on Hanson that even the FBI won’t touch. His shadowy henchmen deliver, producing a dossier of photos allegedly depicting a naked 19-year-old Hanson in the middle of a frat boy sandwich at a college party. Her face isn’t visible in the photos, but Runyon and the Republicans trot out a series of witnesses willing to go on record saying it’s her.
During the confirmation hearings, Runyon delivers a pearl-clutching defense of the ” Internet Libel Protection Act“, urging every American to boycott the website that leaked the “filth and degenerate pornography that should not see the light of day.” Which, of course, results in many Americans seeking out the photos. Hanson’s ratings begin to nosedive.
When the Republicans go low, Hanson goes high, refusing to deny the accusations and innuendo. “If I were a man,” she says, “nobody would care how many sexual partners I had in college. And if it’s not relevant for a man, it’s not relevant for a woman.” Even Evans and Newman beg her to fight back. Newman rages at her: “The people of this nation can stomach quite a bit. But one thing they can’t stomach is the image of a vice president with a mouthful of cock!”
Twenty years later, apparently, the people of this nation can stomach the image of the First Lady naked on the cover of the New York Post, and a President–credibly accused of sexual assault by 26 women–who has bragged about it on tape: “When you’re a star, they let you do it.”
More accurately, when you’re a Republican, they let you do it. Melania Trump’s Slovenian soft-core is no big deal to Fox News, but the network was up in arms over Michelle Obama’s biceps. When Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his running mate for the 2020 US presidential election, right-wing media went after the California senator with a litany of sexist tropes about her political ambition. A common implication, complete with misogynist memes, is that she owes her career to Willie Brown, whom she dated in the 1990s while he was still married and before he became mayor of San Francisco.
The sexist attacks on Senator Harris don’t appear to be gaining traction. Maybe that’s because they can’t be heard over the sonic boom of scandal and incompetence coming from the current White House. But I’d like to believe it’s also because Harris has shut down the questioning. As Laine Hanson says in The Contender, “If I ever did answer the questions, even to exonerate myself, that would mean it was okay for them to have been asked in the first place.” While Harris has addressed the accusation, she has refused to belabor it, thus denying it oxygen.
Democrats, by and large, don’t believe that private, consensual sexual acts should be part of political discourse. In the wake of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, this idea is at the center of The Contender. On the other hand, Shelly Runyon is motivated by a deep-seated fear that unless women’s sexuality is controlled and contained, it will destabilize the social order. In one of his more spittle-filled diatribes, he declares that Hanson’s nomination represents “the cancer of virtuous decay”.
The Contender offers a rebuttal to this notion, sometimes driving home its point with swelling strings and patriotic platitudes. For those of us who are susceptible to this kind of tugging at our bleeding heartstrings, The Contender provides a balm and a sliver of hope that, as the fictional President Evans proclaims, the American people can be “true to the glory of this democracy”.
While I don’t relish the onslaught of sexism in store for Senator Harris should she reach the second-highest office in the land, what I look forward to is simply that we got it over with. As pieces of the glass ceiling finally begin falling, perhaps we can begin to move away from the false equivalencies and fake moral outrage that sets up double standards for women and for Democrats. Perhaps we can get to a place where, as Senator Hanson resolutely affirms, “My personal life and my past are just that.”
Would that a corrective narrative like The Contender actually correct, and the only bedfellows we care about are the political ones. This scenario is about as plausible as The Contender‘s twisty ending, alas, but it would be every bit as satisfying.
Rod Lurie’s The Contender can be viewed on Amazon Prime at the time of publishing.