Best Movies You’ve Never Seen: THE CONTENDER

Written and directed by Rod Lurie
Released October 2000
By Dreamworks

Happy Presidents’ Day!

I figured today is a good day to review this film, since it deals with Presidential politics.

Apparently, this film is set at some point in the near-future of the time, as reference is made to the then-recent Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, meaning the President of this film who is already in his second term must have succeeded Bill Clinton, and thus couldn’t have begun his first term until the year 2000 at the earliest, so this must take place post-2004. That President is Democrat Jackson Evans. As the film begins, it’s been 3 weeks since the Vice President died, so now Evans must select a replacement. This is especially important this year as it’s understood that whomever he chooses would have the fast track to succeed Evans as the Democratic Presidential candidate in the next election. Most political pundits and Evans’ closest advisors suspect that he’ll pick Virginia Governor Jack Hathaway, who has become a public hero after he recently risked his life in an ultimately failed attempt to rescue a woman who drowned after her car crashed into a lake. Thus Governor Hathaway seems like an easy pick, even enjoying the support of Sheldon Runyon, a rightwing Republican congressman who heads the House Judiciary Committee that would hold the hearing to question Evans’ nominee before the vote to confirm or deny them. But instead, Evans surprises everyone by selecting Laine Hanson, a female Senator from Ohio.

Congressman Runyon is adamantly opposed to Hanson’s appointment, feeling that she’s unqualified and was only chosen because she’s a woman (which, in fairness, is Evans admitted main motivation, he flat-out states that he wants to break that “glass ceiling” and put a woman in the White House), and immediately begins a campaign to derail her nomination.

At first, the public supports Hanson, with women, in particular, being inspired by her nomination. But Runyon’s investigators dig up some dirt, with rumors that when she was in college Hanson willingly participated in an orgy at a frat party. Someone finds pictures that are said to be of her at that party having sex with two men at the same time, although it’s not explicitly clear that it is her. Hanson refuses to confirm or deny that rumor or that it is her in the pictures. She insists that her sexual past is no one business, and refuses to dignify the questions by addressing them at all. She won’t even tell Evans whether she did it or not, and he continues to support her nomination even as members of his own candidate urge him to withdraw her from consideration. But her poll numbers drop as Runyon presses the issue.

Things get worse when, after denying under oath that she ever committed adultery, it’s discovered that as an adult she did have an affair with a married man. While not technically a lie, as she was not the married one, it makes her look hypocritical in light of the fact that she had voted to impeach Bill Clinton. I will not spoil how the film concludes, but there are a couple of plot twists that I did not see coming, which help make this film memorable and worth watching.

The film is flawed in several aspects. I understand the issues it was trying to raise regarding how much of a politician’s personal life should be held against them or not, something which was a heated public debate during the Lewinsky scandal. It also addresses the double standards that female politicians experience in regard to how they’re judged by the public. It seems like the easiest way to derail a woman’s reputation is by questioning her sex life. But, still, I had a hard time buying Hanson’s determination to “take the high road.” She’s not some idealistic neophyte, she is supposed to be an experienced politician, she has to know that as good as it sounds to say you “don’t want to dignify” a question by answering it, no denial is just going to make many people assume that it’s true.

Her refusal to deny it is especially baffling when (SPOILER ALERT) it’s revealed that no it was not her in those pictures, she did not participate in the orgy after all. So why the heck wouldn’t she just say that?!?

This is a similar problem I had with another political thriller, The American President. That lead character, the President, also seemed woefully naive in his resolve to avoid responding to personal attacks from his opponent.

The final scene is also a little too unrealistically idealistic for me, as well.

Nevertheless, the film is saved by the work of the stellar cast. Jeff Bridges as President Evans plays his role with sincerity and humor. You could actually imagine him as Bill Clinton’s successor in real life. And while he’s the “villain” of the film, Gary Oldman displays a certain amount of wicked charm as Congressman Runyon. I think he clearly liked playing that character. And, of course, the real standout is Joan Allen as Senator Hanson. Even with her questionable choices, I found myself rooting for her character, I don’t know many other actresses who could have pulled that off so well. All three actors would receive several award nominations for this film, including Allen and Bridges who got Best Actress and Best Support Actor nods at the Oscars and Golden Globes.

Honorable mentions go to Sam Elliott, as President Evans’ Chief of Staff, Kermit (seriously, his name is Kermit), Christian Slater as a young Democratic junior congressman who joins Runyon in opposition to Hanson’s appointment, and William Peterson, as Governor Hathway. All I’ll say about that latter is that his role is small but quite important to the story.

For an intelligent drama that will make you think, check out this film.


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