The Contender (review)

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A Woman’s Place…

…is in the House. And the Senate. Or so goes the feminist rallying cry. But the truth is that in movies as in life, when women wield any political power at all, it’s usually as the bimbo half of a scandal involving highly placed men, and the power of those women is negative: It’s the power to bring a Washington career crashing down. And the relatively few women who have entered the political fray themselves know that redistributing authority is an uphill climb: A woman has to work twice as hard as a man for half the recognition, and she’d better be prepared for commentary on her hairdo along the way.

Feminist clichés aside, that is precisely what The Contender does: Put feminist clichés aside to tell an honest and straightforward story about lies and corruption, a sharp and cutting tale that often verges on satire about what a woman — or a man — needs to make it to the very summit of American power: the White House.
Democratic President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges: Simpatico, The Muse) wants to redistribute some authority. His vice president has died as The Contender opens, and his choice for successor is Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen: Pleasantville, The Ice Storm). Evans’s closest advisors, Kermit Newman (Sam Elliott) and Jerry Tolliver (Saul Rubinek), prefer Governor Jack Hathaway (William L. Petersen)… who just happens to be a close friend of Republican Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman: Lost in Space, The Fifth Element), the chair of the House committee that must confirm or reject the president’s nominee. The cards are stacked against Evans and Hanson.

Though one female character terms the nastiness of Hanson’s confirmation hearing “an ideological rape of all women,” writer/director Rod Lurie avoids turning his film into a feminist diatribe with complicated characters of both genders who are never quite as perverse nor quite as innocent as they first appear. When Runyon and his cronies turn up evidence of Hanson’s college-age sexual escapades, they are happy to use it, on the sly, in an attempt to quash her nomination. Runyon’s methods may be despicable, if also par for the course inside the Beltway, but his motives aren’t nearly as reprehensible: It’s not that he’s opposed to a woman in the White House, it’s that he just doesn’t see the potential for greatness in Hanson. Maybe that’s a result of some ingrained misogyny; maybe the vice president doesn’t need to be great. It still makes it hard to dislike too much the putative villain of the piece. Oldman, a chameleon of an actor who so disappears into this part that he is unrecognizable, walks a fine line between out-of-touch and misunderstood pol and Despicable Bad Guy with an extraordinary finesse that never lets you entirely hate him.

Likewise, Hanson is not a paragon of feminist goddesshood or even an entirely appropriate role model for little girls or aspiring public servants. She switched parties, from Republican to Democratic in the past, which to some makes her a turncoat — and she defied her new party by voting to impeach Clinton, we learn in a reference that makes the film feel startlingly up to date. She is out as an atheist — not that there’s anything wrong with that, except that it’s political suicide. (It’s refreshing to see someone, anyone, so casually rejecting religion on film, and doubly so to see it in a movie about politics this election season, in which the “G” word has been shamelessly used as a political tool.) And then there’s the matter of her sexuality — that she is sexual at all seems to be enough to condemn her. But Hanson won’t have it. If boys can get away with being boys, she is determined that girls should be allowed to be girls. Allen, who Can Do No Wrong, gives Hanson the backbone she needs to weather a political firestorm in defense of her principles, even when they threaten to ruin her.

A politician who doesn’t cave? It’s a fantasy, of course, but a hopeful one, and one that doesn’t ring false here, probably because I’d like to believe in the possibility so much. I’d like to think there are people in Washington like Hanson, or like Democratic Congressman Reginald Webster (Christian Slater: Very Bad Things); sure, he crosses the aisle to work with Runyon against Hanson, but he plays fair and follows his idealistic heart. The good guys are probably more like Evans, the presidential charmer whose veneer of shallowness and insincerity is only a front for advanced methods of personal manipulation — lies and more lies in aid of a worthy cause.

The Contender‘s Washington — and the real one — is a world where spin maneuvers a tragedy into political gain, a world that does its damnedest to reshape honest and gracious people into vicious, ruthless bulldogs. But The Contender‘s Washington is also a place in which greatness is not always showy or visible, and to reveal it is to lose it. Is the real Washington the same? I suppose it’s impossible to know.

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