Canonized political thrillers have been celebrated less for their ability to speak to their own political moment and more for the continued relevance they accrue with the test of time. All the President’s Men (1976) is a portrait of the Fourth Estate’s duty to call out corrupt power and assume all the risks that this entails. The Candidate (1972) illustrates the irreconcilable balancing act that modern politicians perform between the roles of legislator and media celebrity.
All the King’s Men (1949) warned that demagogues could happen in the US. In making and promoting The Contender (2000), Rod Lurie referenced many of these films, and trumpeted his love for ‘70s political thriller maestro Alan J. Pakula.
Despite accruing two Oscar nominations the year of its release (Best Actress for Joan Allen and Best Supporting Actor for Jeff Bridges) and later acquiring the distinction of featuring President Obama’s favorite fictional president, The Contender has not exactly joined the ranks of its touted predecessors. Instead of gaining the sense of timelessness afforded the reputations of its referents, The Contender takes on an unexpected historical specificity 16 years after its release. Rather than an enduring lesson for politics henceforth, The Contender is a revealing time capsule of the ready-for-television political trials of the ’90s.
The second feature by Lurie, a former entertainment journalist and self-proclaimed “political junkie”, The Contender depicts a popular Democratic President (Bridges) who seeks to secure his legacy in the last 18 months of his administration. He does this by confirming a woman to the Vice Presidency after the death of the standing VP leaves a gap in the Oval Office. The confirmation process gets bumpy, however, when his nominee, Ohio Senator Laine Hanson (Allen) is subjected to the moralizing political theater of obstructionist Republican Congressman, Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), after a private investigation brings to light damning evidence of Hanson’s alleged participation in an orgy during a sorority initiation ceremony. Runyon’s campaign is not cooled within the court of public opinion by Hanson’s principled response: she neither confirms nor denies these accusations, but contests the notion that they should be made in the first place.
The central drama seems a clear outgrowth of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In the film, the Democrats’ defense against Republicans’ moral majoritarian handwringing is to reiterate that one’s private life has little to do with their ability to serve in public office. And The Contender’s existence as an inevitable byproduct of its political moment is potent in its depiction of the Oval Office, wherein a popular second-term President’s highest priority is to navigate the winds of a partisan scuffle around a final, legacy-enshrining maneuver between turns in the White House bowling alley.
The Contender is a depiction of an insular war during a national peacetime, echoing that the defining concerns of the (first) Clinton era were largely domestic. In fact, The Contender could credibly be considered the last film of the Clintonian ’90s, a film more aligned with Primary Colors and The American President than any cinematic political drama that followed it into the early years of the 21st century. That The Contender was released three and a half weeks before the tumultuous 2000 Presidential election–not to mention the international and domestic disasters that this event would bring–gives it a unique status as a cultural object that ripped its drama from the headlines only to enter a vastly different political, cultural, and media context.
Yet The Contender can’t be seen for exactly what it is when evaluated strictly through the framework of its most proximate real-life referents. In its political world, the subject of sexual impropriety allegations and the popular second-term Democratic President are two different figures.
Lurie states in his commentary that his frame of reference was his desire to make a “feminist statement” after his daughter’s birth, an event that eroded “every sexist bone” in his body. As suggested in Lurie’s declaration of well meaning but arm’s-length feminism (the film’s first closing credit is “To Our Daughters”), The Contender’s feminist imagination is rather limited, especially for political fiction. Its drama, after all, stages a searing fight within rather low political stakes: the position in question is a high-profile but (as Hanson herself admits) rather powerless office to assume during the second half of a second term, and we’re expected to believe that several powerful political actors sink their careers in coveting this post. One does not need to compare The Contender to its antecedents, like the global-scale soap opera of House of Cards (2013- ) or Veep’s (2012-) view of the Vice Presidency as an inherently comic office, to look upon the film’s fiction with skepticism and disappointment.
In The Contender’s climax, Bridges’ President Evans gives a rousing speech urging a joint session of Congress to confirm Hanson and pave a way for the future of women in executive office. Yet, 16 years before The Contender‘s release, the Democratic Party actually nominated a female politician, Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, as the running mate on Walter Mondale’s ticket. This is a future that The Contender has chosen not to visualize; it’s a future paved not by decisive women who risk their privacy in pursuit of political change, but by well-meaning male gatekeepers who combat reactionary male gatekeepers.
So perhaps the better frame of reference for the film is not the Lewinsky scandal (a media trial in which neither side of the political aisle took a feminist position), but the other media trials of the ‘90s that put systemic issues of gender, race, and class on the bench, such as the Pamela Smart trial, the Clarence Thomas hearings, and the O.J. Simpson trial. As these trials have been resurrected in recent documentaries, a limited series, and a television movie, so too could The Contender’s fiction be said to resonate with Our Current Moment, such as this scene where Runyon calls into question Hanson’s capacity to serve as Commander-in-Chief due to her reproductive abilities.
However, The Contender’s assertions of its convictions (that private life has little to do with public office) becomes muddled by its ending. After the hearings end and the President sees to the ruination of Runyon’s political career, Evans asks Hanson directly what happened during her sorority initiation, to which she assures the Commander in Chief and the audience that she did not participate in group sex.
This conservative maneuver cuts against the film’s central thesis, tacitly conceding that it should be important to the audience that Hanson is sexually chaste. Indeed, these characters’ private lives are essential to the film’s character development and drama. It matters to The Contender that Hanson did not have sex during her sorority initiation just as it matters to The Contender that Runyon’s marriage is falling apart as he self-righteously grasps for the spectacle of television news dominance. In the type of conventional narrative adult drama that The Contender enacts (a category of filmmaking that was, as hard as it is to believe now, a norm in the ‘90s), character is essential to the drama, even as the film asserts that it is inessential to politics.
The idea that private conduct is irrelevant to public office is not a lesson we have learned since the first Clinton presidency. The notion that the public figures of 2016 should have lives that remain private is a position that very few in politics and media (save for the Lawrence Lessigs amongst us) see as worthy of defense. Yet during the same ’90s that The Contender drew its themes, putting personal matters on trial also served as a powerful conduit for progressive change. As depicted over the end credits of Confirmation (2016) — HBO’s drama of Anita Hill’s testimony at the Thomas hearings — the wave of women who came into politics after Hill’s testimony did not do so because they thought that private lives do not matter to public office. Instead, this change occurred under the broad recognition that the politics of gender and the conduct of powerful men flow from the laws passed in the Senate to the workplace norms of attorney’s offices, then to the terms with which women are objectified in locker rooms. Politics does not yield to private spaces.
President Evans ends The Contender with the aforementioned speech admonishing Congress for crossing a line that will be duly uncrossed with the confirmation of Hanson, for transcending a boundary of decency that will be restored with the political excommunication of the Shelly Runyons of the world. The Contender ends with swelling music and a notion of triumph that is absent from the Pakula tradition of the political thriller to which Lurie feels indebted. The difference between those political thrillers and The Contender is that however romantically we may canonize these older films, they stage a moment of no return, a loss of innocence (however naïve), wherein either our perceptions or the actual rules of politics are forever changed. Where The Contender falls short is in its inability to ask: now that private life matters in politics, how does it matter, and for whom?