The 2000 political melodrama The Contender is one of the most hypocritical films that I’ve ever seen.
The Contender tells the story of what happens when U.S. Sen. Laine Hanson (played by Joan Allen) is nominated to be vice president by President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges). During Laine’s confirmation hearings, Rep. Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) dredges up rumors that, at a college frat party, Laine took part in a threesome in exchange for money.
When Runyon asks Laine about the rumors, she replies that she refuses to answer any questions about what she may or may not have done while she was younger. She replies that it is “simply beneath my dignity” and you know what? She’s absolutely right. First off, if someone could be disqualified just because of what they did in college then nobody would eve be eligible to be President. Secondly, and far more importantly, nobody would care about Laine’s sexual history if she was a man.
For over two hours, Laine refuses to answer any questions about the allegations and instead, she turns the tables on her attackers. And while this alone would not have made The Contender a good film (because, after all, The Contender was written and directed by Rod “Straw Dogs” Lurie), it at least would have been a film that I could respect.
But, Rod Lurie being Rod Lurie, he just couldn’t help but fuck it all up.
Towards the end of the film, Laine is attending a White House reception. She and President Evans sit down on the White House lawn and, as the stars shine above them, Evans says, “Just between us, is it true?”
Now, there’s two things that Laine could have said here that would have kept this film from falling apart. Laine could have said, “It’s none of your business.” And that would have been the right thing to say because, quite frankly, it is none of the President’s business. The whole point of the movie has been that it’s not anyone’s business.
Or, if the film actually had any guts, Laine could have said, “Yes, it’s totally true. Like most people, I experimented when I was in college. But that doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not I’m qualified to be your vice president.”
But no. Instead, Laine smiles and says, “Nothing happened. Two guys propositioned me, I said no, and they spread rumors.”
So, basically, the film is saying, “It’s nobody’s business if Laine was sexually active in college but don’t worry, Mr. and Mrs. American Audience, she was a virgin until she turned 30. So, it’s still okay for you to like her…”
And that’s the thing about The Contender. It’s a film that doesn’t have the courage of its own convictions. It’s a film that drags on for over two hours and it expects you to forgive it just because it pretends to have good intentions. As a woman, there’s nothing I hate more than being pandered to and, for all of its attempts to come across as being feminist, The Contender is all about pandering.
What makes The Contender an interesting bad film — as opposed to just your usual bad film — is how even the littlest details feel false. It’s obvious that Lurie knew all of the legal details that go into confirming a Vice President but he didn’t know how to make any of those details dramatically compelling. So, the film becomes a bit of a know-it-all lecture. By the time that Saul Rubinek popped up and said, “Do you know what Nelson Rockefeller said about the vice presidency?,” I found myself snapping back, “No, what did Nelson Rockefeller say about the Vice Presidency? Please tell because ah am so sure that it is just goin’ to be the most fascinatin’ thang that ah will ever hear in mah entire life!”
(The more annoyed I get, the more pronounced my Texas accent.)
There’s a lot of weird little things about The Contender that just don’t work. They may not sound like major problems but when combined together, they start to add up. For instance, there’s a long shot where we see U.S. Rep. Reginald Webster (Christian Slater) and his blonde wife at a White House reception and the shot just lingers on them for no particular reason. Long after you would expect the shot to end, it’s still going. This wouldn’t be an issue if there was some narrative reason for that shot. Instead, it’s just randomly dropped in there.
And then, after Laine is nominated, we see the front page of a newpaper and there, in the middle of the page, is a headshot of Joan Allen. Underneath it, a small headline reads, “It’s Laine!” It just feels so fake. Wouldn’t the nomination of the first female vice present actually rate a bigger headline and a more dynamic picture?
Speaking of fake, towards the end of the film, President Evans picks up a framed magazine cover and stares down at it. The magazine, itself, looks like one of those joke “Man of the Year” pictures that people pose for at a state fair. On the cover is a picture of Last Picture Show era Jeff Bridges. The headline on the magazine reads: “President Jackson Evans. His ideas have changed the world.” Not his actions, mind you. Not his policies. Instead, his ideas have changed the world. But the film shows us no evidence of this and, during Laine’s confirmation hearings, everyone spends the whole time debating the same old shit that they always seem to be debating in Washington.
(Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have a name like Jackson Evans, I guess you might as well become President.)
Of course, when it looks like Laine might not be confirmed, President Evans speaks before Congress. “For the first time, a woman will serve in the executive!” he declares, which seems like a hilariously awkward way to put it. (People in this film don’t talk like human being as much as they talk like characters in some fucked up Washington D.C. fanfic.) He then adds, “There are traitors among us!”
So, I guess the message here is yay for demagogues.
And don’t even get me started on Kathryn Morris, as the cheerful FBI agent who investigates Laine’s past and who, at one point, announces, “Laine is hope!” Would a male FBI agent ever have to deliver a line that stupid?
And also don’t even get me started on the subplot about Gov. Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), who stages an auto accident in an attempt to convince President Evans to nominate him for vice president.
The Contender is not a good film but it could have at least been a respectable film. But then, Rod Lurie had to have President Evans ask whether it was true or not.
Perhaps being a hypocrite was the idea that changed the world.