Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Contender

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

On one level, this 2000 film, written and directed by Rod Lurie, is a liberal argument for the acceptance of a woman in one of the highest offices in the United States government. But, it doesn’t depict its characters as being totally good and bad, since it deals with the nature of politics, and the liberals here also have their flaws. In addition, the film is a mystery, as the plot not only entertains, but also plays with the audience, making it culpable by allowing prejudices against women lead the viewer to possibly wrong conclusions.
The opening of the film shows Governor Jack Hathaway (William Petersen) fishing while being interviewed. A speeding car then crashes over the side of the bridge above Hathaway’s boat. The governor immediately dives into the water and attempts to rescue the female driver, but he is unsuccessful, and the young woman drowns. The general response is that Hathaway has the heart of a hero. But, we are already led into the stereotypical viewpoint of seeing the man in the role of saving a woman. Many in the Democratic Party consider Hathaway a rising political star, and assume the president will nominate him to fill the vacancy of the recently deceased vice-president.
Hathaway meets with President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) and his adviser, Kermit Newman (Sam Elliott). The president is a quirky fellow who is always either asking people if they want to eat something, ordering food, or is eating himself. He appears to be complimentary in a folksy and friendly way, but many times his engaging manner is just a diversion to put his opponents at ease while he undermines them. Evans praises Hathaway for his heroism, but then says he can’t give him the vice-presidency because he actually didn’t save the woman. Kermit says it looks like he let the woman die. The president and Kermit appear cold in their assessment of Hathaway, who looks like a decent man who Evans unfairly dismissed from consideration. We have a scene between Hathaway and his wife, Fiona (Kristen Shaw), which demonstrates that the movie is not just a feminist manifesto. Yes, Fiona does not play the role of the smiling, supportive wife. But, she is overcompensating in an almost too masculine way by being brutal as she questions her husband’s masculinity in not being more aggressive in trying to claim his right to the vice-presidency. She tells him not to act like a little girl, which shows Fiona stereotyping her own gender as fearful. She says he needs to grow a pair of “balls,” and might as well bend over, since he was “screwed.” Her recounting of their plans for success reveals a bit of a Lady MacBeth personality.
As the president confers with his staff, he shows that he has his own agenda where he wants a vice-president who will continue his policies. He doesn’t want someone who is ambitious and will try to overshadow Evans as his presidency winds down. He chooses Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). Kermit questions her ability to be loyal, since she switched from being a Republican to being a Democrat, but Evans is not dissuaded. The idea of loyalty comes up several times in the movie, and Hanson seems the better person for switching parties because her loyalty to principles is more important than fidelity to a political party. She says her party has strayed from its original principles that freed slaves and gained the right to vote for women. Her father, Oscar Billings (Philip Baker Hall), a former governor, is a Republican, but he does not follow a straight party line. He hates the press, as do many current Republicans for slanted reporting, but also believes in the separation of church and state, and says that schools are there to teach, “not to preach.”

When Hanson gets the call from the White House, she is about to have sex right in her office with her husband, William Hanson (Robin Thomas). The fact that the first shot of her is a sexual one shows her to be a person who enjoys physical pleasure. In the history of film, there aren’t many instances where women can be as sexual as men. The movie plays with our prejudices that women who enjoy sex are sluts, and in the end, reveals preconceived notions about women and sexuality, and questions them. The film shows the overemphasis on a woman’s appearance because men have viewed females as sex objects for so long. The White House staff notes that Hanson looks good, and even the president makes this observation. One of the staff, Jerry Tolliver (Saul Rubinek) questions Hanson’s wearing a red dress at the press announcement. This objection refers to the prejudicial association of the color with prostitutes working the “red light” district. Kermit dismisses the issue, and Hanson does not back down, saying the dress “works.” Hermit also points out another gender double standard in the political process. He says that Hanson’s husband must be invisible during the hearings, because a woman’s presence is seen as supportive if her husband is the nominee, but in this case the man is considered the one with power, and would be perceived as a “puppeteer.”
The main opposition to Hanson’s appointment comes from the head of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman). He accurately states the prejudice against women when he says that a woman has to look good and have perfect credentials to compete against a man. He says that the only reason Margaret Thatcher was successful was because she answered to a man, in her case, Ronald Reagan. When Kermit goes to him to seek a smooth confirmation, Runyon calls Hanson the White House’s “girl,” which is derogatory and is like calling an African American adult male a “boy.” Runyon also shows his sexism by suggesting a man, Governor Hathaway, as a person worthy of a quick approval.
Runyon promises to have Democrats represented on his committee, so a Democrat from Delaware named Reginald Webster (Christian Slater) asks Runyon to be part of the review process. At first Webster just wants the exposure, since he is ambitious, and says he is one hundred percent objective. Runyon says constituents want him for his subjectivity. When Webster again approaches Runyon he says he believes Hanson is not right for the position, also thinks Hathaway the better choice, and promises discretion in the committee’s dealings. There is a meeting with others, including Hathaway, who appears to be a gentler conspirator when it comes to the tactics Runyon wants to employ. Runyon again references Hanson’s appearance, calling her a “looker,” and she has the advantage of being a governor’s daughter. The fact that she was once a Republican makes her look not too liberal. He says they have to defeat her by depicting her as being the wrong person. They will have to “destroy” her. One man there says, in a brutally misogynistic way, that they have to “gut the bitch.” Runyon says that they should show her to be as ruthless as a man, which ironically criticizes males, but also shows that women acting in the same arena as men have difficulty being accepted.

A member of Runyan’s camp meets with one of Hanson’s, Lewis Hollis (Mike Binder) to leak what he considers objectionable material that the Republican leader has obtained. However, we are in the world of Washington politics, so nobody comes off totally noble. He hopes that he will get a job at the White House as a reward for the disclosure. Where is his “loyalty?” Is he a traitor to his party but loyal to a higher good, or just loyal to his own ambitions?  In any case, he shares photos of a college girl who looks like Hanson while she was in college involved in a sexual encounter with multiple males. Runyon also has a deposition from a woman who says she was there, and saw Hanson drunk and engaged in group sex (Is this female informer disloyal to her gender here?) Hollis shares the information with Hanson’s husband, who then shows it to his wife. Before the president even hears of the story, Kermit asks Hanson to remove her name for consideration for the vice presidency out of, yes that word again, loyalty for her party and the president. If she doesn’t withdraw, then he wants her to deny the allegations. But, Hanson’s loyalty is to her principles, and she says she will not address the issue because it would be beneath her dignity to do so. She disagrees with Kermit’s desire to get depraved evidence on Runyon because she believes that makes them no better than he is. Unfortunately, Kermit says they are no better than Runyon. This observation seems to suggest that the nature of politics in the past, and also today, entails getting in the gutter with one's opponent and using the same dirty tools to defend oneself.
According to tradition, Hanson must meet Runyon for lunch as part of the confirmation process. He exhibits his propensity for male dominance by already ordering her a steak (a “manly” choice) before she arrives, making the decision for her, regardless of her wishes. She is a vegetarian, and orders spicy penne (which is what the president previously ordered, and which implies her connection to the chief executive). Runyon says circumstances bring out the greatness (another word that is repeated in the script) in some presidents, which can’t be seen before hand. But, what he wants in a vice president who can possibly become the leader, is the “promise of greatness,” which he says Hanson does not have. However, he does not say why he does not see that greatness in her. Could it be that it is because she is a woman? He probably would attribute her lack of presidential potential to her past. He says that he has the evidence that shows she engaged in “deviant sex.” Hanson says who determines that it was deviant, and Runyon quickly answers, “I do. What I say the American believe. And do you know why? Because I have a very big microphone in front of me.” And there it is, the danger in a democracy which allows freedom of expression, but requires responsibility on what is said, especially by its leaders, because they are in a position of status and can use their fame to be either good or dangerous role models. Hanson turns the argument around on Runyon, saying that if he states that a woman being too sexual invalidates her won’t work because if she were in power, and wasn’t “getting laid,” you wouldn’t want to have her finger on the nuclear trigger. The title of the movie becomes more relevant as Hanson is tested, since she must show she can fight in order to show she has a shot at winning the title she seeks.
Webster is invited to the White House by the president who wants to persuade him, as a member of the Democratic Party, to not break ranks on Hanson’s nomination. Before Evans shows up, we can plainly see on Webster’s face that he enjoys being in the president’s home. He wraps his arms around himself, imitating the portrait of President John F. Kennedy, which communicates his own ambitions to possibly live at this residence. The president enters, again offering some food to ease his way into getting what he wants. It is interesting that he brings a shark steak sandwich, which possibly implies you have to be a predator to survive playing big stakes politics. Webster says he must follow his heart and that he can’t vote for Hanson just because she is a woman. A reasonable statement, but it also follows that one shouldn’t vote against a person just because she is a woman. The real question is whether Hanson is an excellent candidate whose qualities should not be dismissed for being a female. The president again seems to admire Webster for taking a stand, but undermines that praise by saying the congressman will feel good even though his position will destroy his political career. Evans sarcastically says you have to follow one's heart, because the heart is “never wrong,” the absolutist statement actually implying that sometimes it is. Yet, those on both sides announce that they are acting out of some higher good, which is, in a sense, following one’s heart. What we discover is that some justify twisted means to reach their ends.
We know that there must be a background investigation of Hanson. It is here where the mystery aspect of the movie comes into play, along with its associated red herrings to lead the audience astray. Agent Paige Willomina (Kathryn Morris) meets with Governor Hathaway. One should ask why? He admits that he doesn’t know Hanson, after deceptively acting like he knows what an admirable person she is (don’t forget he was in on the Hanson attack meeting with Runyon, so his shiny reputation has already been tarnished). Or, is he being checked out as the possible replacement for Hanson by the president? To add to his diminishment, Hathaway asks Willomina if his “girl” (that condescending word again) offered her some coffee. Willomina picks up on the negative term, saying, yes she met his “girl.” Like the president, Willomina disarms the person she encounters by acting as if she is praising him. She talks about Hathaway’s heroics, then wonders why he was in the crabbing section of the waters when he was bass fishing. She assumed given his expensive fishing equipment he fished a great deal, but he seems to be backpedaling, saying he would like to fish  more, but doesn’t have the time.

After the president finds out about Hanson’s supposed past, he is actually on the same page as her when it comes to not caving into the sexual double standard. He says that he doesn’t care if she was involved with one guy or the whole football team while in college. Their opponents want to embarrass her, and, if approved, send her into the administration as a “virus” to infect his presidency with negativity. He tells her the best way to fight the attacks is not to be embarrassed because she has no reason to be ashamed of her sexual past. Also, he actually sees something of himself in Webster, and tells Kermit not to go after the young congressman.

We also get a clue as to why Runyon is being so combative. Runyon may be claiming it is based on ideology, and politics is war, and the saying goes that all is fair in war (a questionable tenet). In fact, he tells his staff that Hanson represents a cancer “of liberalism, of affirmative action,” and is disloyal to her country because she questions the established order. He says he wants to paint Hanson as the portrait of someone who represents the “decay of virtue.” But, Evans deprived Runyon of the presidency, so there is an element of revenge in trying to deny Evans his legacy of elevating a woman into the position of possibly succeeding to the presidency. However, director Lurie gives us shots of Hanson running, pushing herself to excel, and she finishes her run in Arlington Cemetery, showing she knows how to fight in a war, even unto death.

It doesn’t mean that Hanson isn’t shaky at the beginning of the Congressional hearing. She is awkward using the microphone, and she raises her left hand at first instead of her right when being sworn in. Runyon, too, is effective in first acting like he is on her side, when he actually is there to undercut. Webster at first is one of Runyon’s operatives, and points out that Hanson is an atheist, so she swore an oath to an entity in which she does not believe. Runyon says she has a constitutional right to show her “disdain” for God. In one sentence he seems to be acting fairly, but actually is condemning her beliefs through his word usage.

We shift back to the mystery as Agent Willomina interviews a woman who talks about her “pretty wild” sorority sister with whom she has kept in touch and who offered to treat her to a stay in Las Vegas. It sounds like she might be talking about Hanson, because we, the audience, are seduced into the scandalous news stories about the senator’s past. But, if we use our reason instead of giving into our baser impulses, we would ask why is Hanson, while in the middle of an intense confirmation battle, going off to Vegas to party with an old college friend, spreading money around?

The focus then moves to a scene with Runyon and his wife Maggie (Irene Ziegler). She talks about how she gave up her dreams of having a family to pursue his desire to do good in the world. But, she sees his character assassination of Hanson based on suspected sexual misconduct as disgusting. She says she was proud of him when he passed legislation involving hate crimes. She now says he will go down as a second-rate Joe McCarthy (which is a pretty low level of notoriety). He says Hanson is “no good,” but we know from his previous statements that his definition of no good is based on his own belief in the double sexual standard. So, Runyon has stood for certain principles in the past, but at the same time he, as a man, placed his career above a woman’s wishes, his wife, by denying her children.

The attacks against Hanson begin to intensify. While she is interviewed on a TV program, the host ambushes her with a call from a guy who said he was one of the men who had sex with Hanson at the frat party. Hanson, again not wanting to address the allegation, walks off. Runyon, at the hearing, pretending to push for internet slander laws, actually provides the name of the web site that contains the college sex story. He implies that if the story is true then her actions were pornographic and deviant. In private, he also fosters unverified stories that Hanson received money for sexual favors while in college, basically labeling her as a prostitute. (It is telling that during the hearing, Runyon, who is perpetuating lies, asks if Hanson understands that she is under oath to tell the truth, and she says that, “Yes, I understand that, between the two of us, I am the one under oath”). Webster, becoming indignant, questions the veracity of the articles. Runyon (employing what we would today label “fake news”) says he wants to put Hanson in the position to have to defend herself against phony accusations that have been planted in the public consciousness to raise doubts about her character.

At the hearing, Runyon’s sexism is obvious. He notes that Hanson took a period of absence when having a child in the past. Runyon emphasizes that she had paid leave during this time, and Hanson shoots back that we shouldn’t punish workers  for having children. Her statement unknowingly is an indictment of Runyon who believed he couldn’t have a career and also be a parent. He asks if she were to have a child if she became president, would she have to relinquish her position to her vice president? Of course this attitude presupposes the old fashioned idea that a woman has to be the one to stay home to take care of the baby, not the man. At this point, Webster, starting to get fed up with Runyon, interrupts and asks if Runyon would require that Hanson have her “tubes tied” in order to qualify for the position. Webster exposes Runyon’s double standard ideas and propensity for male domination over the most private aspects of a woman’s life.

Hanson is flawed, however, since she had an affair with her current husband while he was still married and he was running Hanson’s senatorial campaign. But, even in this instance, male bullying is evident, as the all-male committee forces the ex-wife, Cynthia (Mariel Hemingway), who was Hanson’s friend, to testify about this personal and embarrassing event in her life. The representatives say she is “among friends” but friends don’t exploit one’s past for political advantage. During this interview, Webster looks disgusted by the proceedings, showing his alienation from the process. Runyon, a strong “pro-life” advocate, drops all pretense of civility as he attacks Hanson’s “pro-choice” stance, saying she has a “propensity” for abortion, which is a slanted overemphasis of her views. He calls abortion the murder of a baby as it grows in the womb, and abortion rights are a “holocaust” against the unborn. However, Runyon’s wife goes to Hanson, and tells her that her husband’s actions are an “ideological rape of women,” and informs Hanson that when he calls Hanson a murderer of babies, ask Runyon if his wife was a murderer when she had an abortion. Runyon didn’t know of this fact, but his domineering control of his marriage and refusal to have children pushed his wife into that decision. (Getting back to the loyalty theme, is Mrs. Runyon being disloyal, or is she right in thinking her loyalty to her gender is more elevated than loyalty to her husband?) Hanson, however, doesn’t bring this fact up at the hearing, preferring to take the high road, unlike Runyon.

Webster meets privately with Hanson. He is moving further away from his initial stance, and, asks why she isn’t fighting back in the presence of what has become bullying. When she says it isn’t anybody’s business about her sexual past, he says the American people think it is their business because leaders should stand for a moral code, and she should do so for young girls. Even though he appears to be helping here, he is actually still presenting the double standard by saying that “young girls” have a separate rule book. Hanson says she shouldn’t have to say it, but states the obvious in her mind when she tells him that if it’s not relevant to ask about a man’s sexual history in college, then it’s not relevant to ask about a woman’s past.

The president has been publicly supportive of Hanson, telling reporters that people shouldn’t judge unless they don’t mind being judged, and he wouldn’t mind having the support in an election of all those who had sexual issues in their past, because he would win by a landslide. He isn’t differentiating between male and females, but puts all under one standard. However, when he meets with Kermit and Hanson privately, his frustration is growing because Hanson is not fighting back. He says she appears to be a sex-crazed home-wrecker in the way Runyon is portraying her. But in terms of her affair with her future husband, he says that all the committee did was catch her “being human.” It is important here that the president did not say being a flawed woman, but instead put her in the same category as men. Evans and Kermit say it is okay to confess to the past, to show that there shouldn't be a double standard, and maybe to show how indulgence in alcohol can lead to lapses in judgment. But sexism even appears here, as Kermit says, like Webster, that she should warn girls of what can happen if not careful. Hanson says she will step down if the president wants, but she sticks to her guns that the sexual issue is not anybody’s business. Evans continues to support her, but urges a strong closing statement at the hearing.

Hanson finishes with a speech that emphasizes the issues. She believes in a basically liberal agenda: insure a woman’s right to choose; eliminate the death penalty; get rid of privately owned guns; maintain a strong military to fight genocide; make selling cigarettes to minors a Federal offense; institute campaign reforms and term limits. She goes on to say that she believes in the separation of church and state to protect the state from religious fanaticism. She says she may be an atheist, but she has faith in freedom and attends the church of democracy.

We have another bit of red herring flung our way as Webster again meets with Hanson and gives her Runyon’s file which contains a letter from someone who has come forth concerning the college scandal. He tells her she must publicly address the issue. (Once again, we have an act that one could say is disloyal as Webster becomes an informant, and again, the question arises is it possible that immediate allegiances must be put aside for the greater good?) The mystery is heightened when Willomina hands her report to the director of the FBI, but then also gives it to Kermit, who insures that no one else be informed of her findings. What is her assignment? Willomina pleads that Kermit not dump Hanson. Has she dug up dirt on her, and she doesn’t want it used?

The president meets with Runyon for dinner. (Runyon eats his masculine dish - steak). Runyon seems to have the upper hand, and tells Evans that a vote will just embarrass his presidency. He should just move on and pick someone else. Evans says he may have denied Runyon the chance to be president, but Runyon took away Evans’ legacy. Evans asks who would get a smooth confirmation, and Runyon says Hathaway. Evans says to ensure that Runyon won’t double-cross him, he says Runyon must come out ahead of time for Hathaway, and stake his reputation on supporting him. Runyon agrees, and the president says they will meet with Hathaway and Hanson before a state dinner. Runyon tells the press that he stakes his reputation on Hathaway being the best person for the job.
We now find out what has been really going on, and we are given a quick hint it isn’t good for Hathaway, since Kermit escorts his wife out of the meeting room. The president is still being disarming as he again orders food, and this time succeeds in his game of catching the chef unprepared because there is no muenster cheese for a sandwich. Evans drops a file which shows that Willomina’s investigation found that Hathaway had advertised in a magazine called Soldier of Fortune for someone to help him. He hired the woman, who was ex-military, to drive off of the bridge so he would be a hero when he saved her. Of course, the plan went wrong. He had placed sums of money for her in Las Vegas, and Willomina was investigating the drowned woman and Hathaway, not Hanson. The FBI director arrests Hathaway for negligent homicide. Runyon now realizes the president set him up. At the end of the scene, Evans comically says, “It’s a goddamn shame - about the muenster.”
After the dinner, the president and Hanson walk on the White House lawn in private as they share cigars, symbolic of accepting a woman on equal footing with a man. Evans says he would like to know, off the record, what really happened in college. Hanson admits that she was lonely in college and was willing to be recruited by the sorority. The initiation was to have sex with two frat brothers. She at first refused, but after some beers thought if men were supposed to have a sexual ritual to join a fraternity, why not the same for a woman. But, when she got there, she didn’t go through with it, and the naked woman in the photos couldn’t be her because she has a large birthmark on her thigh which was absent on the female in the pictures. Webster gave a copy of the same letter that he gave to Hanson to Evans. It contains a statement from a male who was there on the night of the sexual encounter which states that Hanson was not the woman involved. The president says that Webster may not know his right from his left (referring to political party allegiance), but he knows right from wrong, which again supports the film’s plea for allegiance to ideals that transcend party lines. Evans wants Hanson to use the evidence to refute Runyon’s allegations. But, Hanson continues to refuse to address the claims. She says that if it is okay for her to answer the questions of her sexual past, then it makes it okay for them to have raised the issue in the first place, and that would justify the double standard. It would be easier to get out of the situation if she refuted their claims, but she says that “Principles only mean something when you stick to them when it’s inconvenient.” One could argue that to really push the argument for obliteration of the double standard, the film could have made the allegations true and held that her past did not disqualify her from being vice president even in the audience’s mind.
Since Hanson will not prove publicly that the sex story was not true, Evans addresses a joint session of Congress. He knows that Runyon has the same letter as he does, and is thus, being deceitful. Runyon may be thinking that he is adhering to his principles, but the bad guys here are those whose ends do not justify their nasty means. Evans publicly calls out Runyon, who walks out, saying “have you no decency,” which was the accusation made against Joe McCarthy. The president says (and he could be addressing our situation today) that Congress was a traitor (disloyalty?) to truth, and allowed the possibility of making it difficult to “separate the demagogue from the truly inspired.” Runyon had said that Hanson did not show greatness. Evans now quotes Napoleon who said that “to get power you need to display absolute pettiness; to exercise power, you need to show true greatness.” He says that Hanson asked that her name be withdrawn, “not because she isn’t great, but because she isn’t petty.” He goes on to say that greatness sometimes “comes in the form of sacrifice.” That sacrifice is what Hanson is willing to endure. He says that there is no ego or hate in her, as opposed to those who would try to bring her down, and Evans can’t accept her withdrawal. He says nothing can stop an idea whose time has come, and it is time for a woman to reside in the executive branch of the the government. He says he should have exerted his will before, but now he asks for a roll call vote to confirm his nominee, whose acceptance is no longer in doubt.

The film ends with Hanson jogging at top speed, showing her will to succeed. In order to fight bigotry, you need a contender.

The next film is Rashomon.

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