An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: The Contender (2000)
- Credit: Archant
Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different
The Contender; dir: Rob Lurie; starring: Gary Oldman, Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, William Petersen, Philip Baker Hall. Cert: 15 (2000)
In these days of Time’s Up and Me Too, it’s really interesting to revisit The Contender, a ground-breaking movie, that tackled the sexual double standards in American politics at the turn of the century.
What makes The Contender so compelling as a film is that the story isn’t just about sexual politics, it also illustrates very clearly the way that the corridors of power were always assumed to be an unassailable boys club.
The Contender is really about the dirty games that politicians play to de-stabilise their opponents and to stop anyone who is really capable (and moral) from coming in, removing their privilege and spoiling their fun.
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As the movie opens, the Vice-President has just died. Everyone assumes that a man will replace him but when the leading candidate is discredited the politically savvy President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) decides to make history. He wants to appoint America’s first Vice-President and Senator Laine Hanson, played by the charismatic Joan Allen, looks to be the best person for the job.
However, she has to be vetted by a Congressional committee first and there are many conservative figures unimpressed by her pro-choice feminist convictions.
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The biggest threat to her confirmation as vice-president is Republican congressman Shelly Runyon, played with venomous charm and steely determination by Gary Oldman. The interesting thing is that although Runyon is clearly set up to be the villain, Oldman refuses to play him as one. This makes the film far more layered, more complex.
Runyon is a deeply conservative person who is doing his best to protect the country he loves from people who wish to change it. The fact that his day has passed doesn’t come into it. He may be wrong, his views may be toxic to liberal, forward-thinking people, but it doesn’t necessarily make him evil – although, being a politician, he doesn’t mind resorting to underhand methods to get his way.
The mudslinging begins when President Evans’ enemies start circulating what they claim are sexually compromising photos of Senator Hanson made years before at a college fraternity initiation. Her response is to flatly refuse to comment as a matter of principle. She will not deny the accusation because “it is simply beneath my dignity.”
This is like a red rag to a bull in the eyes of the congressional committee. They demand that she answer so they can assess whether she is a fit person to hold the office of Vice-President or maybe, one day, President.
This film also highlights how the Americans almost deify the post of President. The post (not the incumbent) is beyond reproach.
Joan Allen’s Laine Hanson is not easily bullied and sticks to her guns. It is clear she is a woman of integrity but, as an audience, we also know that she a highly sexual person because we have seen her making love to her husband, after hours, on her office desk. This plants in our minds doubts about her sexual past.
Hanson’s position rebukes both us and the committee because, in a dazzling speech, she argues: “If I were a man, nobody would care how many sex partners I had in college,” later on her language gets graphic: “There’s one thing you don’t want, and that’s a woman with her finger on the button who isn’t getting laid.”
This is a film of great performances. You are really rooting for Allen’s wronged senator but then you are also reluctantly impressed by Gary Oldman’s grand inquisitor who doesn’t blink in the face of such moral outrage. He merely slips into the official record, under guise of sympathetic concern, details of the web-sites where people can gain pictures of the youthful Laine Hanson enjoying herself at a college orgy.
Even his wife warns him that he could go down in history as being a second-rate Joe McCarthy. Runyon, doesn’t care, he thinks he has his political opponent on the ropes, and continues to focus on her sex life, asking her: “What would you do if you got pregnant in office?”
In the background, staying aloof from all this political infighting, is Jeff Bridges’ canny President Jackson Evans, the nation’s seemingly laid-back chief executive, but who is astutely using Hanson to expose and ultimately undermine his own political rivals.
The Contender is a multi-faceted political drama which would not have been out of place as an on-going storyline in The West Wing. The beauty of it is that nothing is presented as black and white. We don’t even know for sure that it was Laine Hanson at the college sex party.
No-one is predictable or a caricature. The acting is first-rate. Joan Allen gives us a politician who is cool and self-possessed in her public life but is clearly passionate at home, Jeff Bridges’ President Evans, appears relaxed and affable, but is not above using colleagues to gain political advantage while Gary Oldman’s stuffed shirt Republican Senator tries to appear sincere and sympathetic but revels in the sleazy details of Hanson’s sex life and privately admits that no woman should be trusted with the nuclear trigger.
This is a film that leaves you with plenty to talk about.