Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Contender

In my last post I excoriated Edward Zwick’s 1998 film The Siege for its incessant, contemptuous punishing of Annette Bening’s heroine. The most infuriating aspect of it was that the film betrayed no self-consciousness about what it was doing. There seemed to be no moment when, by a line of dialogue or a bit of business, one got the sense that Zwick and his screenwriters were wrestling with their material – trying to make a better movie but constrained by the established vocabulary of Hollywood screenwriting tropes.

Two years later, Rod Lurie’s political drama The Contender would be an exemplar of this same self-consciousness. Like The Siege, it set itself a daunting challenge in casting a talented and well-respected actress in a part that seemed to call for greater steeliness and authority than Hollywood movies often grant their leading ladies. But whereas the former film made no attempt to rise to the challenge – effectively leaving things at “look at the well-meaning but incompetent bitch” – The Contender really leaps at the challenge. That it ultimately falls far short of the mark is discouraging, but I nonetheless look back on it with vastly more liking and respect than Zwick’s travesty.

In the event, The Contender rests entirely upon Joan Allen’s performance as “Senator Laine Hanson” of Ohio, who has been nominated to fill the gap left by the recent death of the vice-president – a nomination which is to be fiercely contested by the most sexually-repressed, misogynistic elements in the Republican Party. From the very first, then, we are in old-school liberal Democratic territory, still championing Geraldine Ferraro in the 1984 election in 2000.

This pedigree, however, brings with it the uncomfortable corollary that, as a character, Laine Hanson has to be made into some sort of liberal ultra-paragon – so spotlessly noble and faultlessly pure of heart that only the most bigoted reactionaries would oppose her. Accordingly, throughout the film, it is enumerated that she is a vegetarian, a secularist, pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-term-limits-and-campaign-reform, anti-death penalty, would make selling cigarettes to minors a federal offence, and supports military spending only for purposes of combating genocide. And in addition to all this we see she’s a loving, devoted wife and mother, a sharp dresser, and cuts a great figure jogging in Arlington National Cemetery. The upshot of this too-good-to-be-true characterization, however, is that she rapidly ceases to be a very identifiable, to say nothing of likable, character. The film bears the same off-putting tone as other American political films, from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and State of the Union on down to The Candidate and Dave, in which we are presented with pious, dewy-eyed virgin candidates who idealistically expect to bring about profound reform through sheer good intentions and purity of heart. We are expected to recoil with them from the unsentimental and unglamorous day-to-day realities of the political process, in which flexibility and deal-making are the only ways to even survive, let alone get anything done. The overall sense is that these lofty souls are doing us a great charity by condescending to run in today’s sordid electoral process, and the voters and the system jolly well ought to grant them every consideration and courtesy because of it. It goes without saying, of course, that in the real world we would soon have the pleasure of saying “good riddance to bad rubbish” to anyone delusional enough to really approach politics in this spirit. Many Hollywood political movies, however, seem genuinely to believe their own nonsense.

And it is here that The Contender’s convolutions begin, because Rod Lurie – who both wrote and directed this film – is clearly canny enough to have sensed this pitfall in advance and tried to avoid it. As a result, the film is liberally sprinkled with sex, one-liners, and narrative backstory which represent a concerted attempt to make Hanson seem more like a fully fleshed-out human being. We are first introduced to her having sex with her husband on her office desk; it soon emerges that her father was a long-serving governor of Ohio, thus implying that her Senate seat may be less meritocracy than nepotism; and we learn that her husband used to be the husband of another woman, from whom she stole him. These are exactly the sort of inconvenient biographical realities that actual political candidates will always have to finesse, and had Lurie stayed on this level, the film would have been far more successful.

All of the efforts to mitigate the tone of holier-than-thou smugness founder on the nature of The Contender’s actual narrative arc, however. The film’s central plotline hinges on a piece of seemingly-damning information the Republicans have dug up on Laine’s past: that in college she supposedly gang-banged an entire house full of frat boys. This is the sort of salacious tidbit that has no bearing on her ability to serve as vice-president, or as president herself, but the opposition are smugly aware that once it has been incepted in the electorate’s mind, it will end up defining her far more than anything about her policy positions or voting record. And in a more mature political film, this fact would have been blithely acknowledged, and we would get to witness the way canny politicians will have equally cynical countermeasures to hand.

The Contender, however, will have none of this. From the very first, Laine’s response resembles less what any real politician’s would be, than that of the saccharine vision of Sir Thomas More evoked by A Man for All Seasons. She simply refuses to dignify these allegations with a response, and makes it clear that she will withdraw her name from the nomination sooner than do so. She declares with extreme dignity that it is unconscionable that questions about such matters be put to her in the first place, since if she were a man such a college escapade would not be considered relevant. Leaving aside the extreme dubiousness of this claim – one suspects the same Republicans would have leapt with the same fervor on the same details about Clinton’s youth – one resents the way Lurie has loaded the dice here. Sucking and fucking an entire frat house is such a wild-yet-ultimately-harmless exploit that it’s easy enough to agree with Laine, but the underlying assumption that old-school chivalry is supposed, at a certain point, to trump the routine workings of partisan politics is an uncomfortable one. Back in ’84, the Democrats were understandably vexed that the Republicans burned up a few weeks of political oxygen by raising suspicions about Ferraro and her husband’s taxes, but was this some fundamental breach of the rules of honor, or a legitimate partisan victory by playing within them? And if the latter, where does the supposed boundary lie? Soon enough, one begins to read the film against the grain, suspecting that its real concern is not whether the Republicans have violated some quorum of political decency, but whether they’ve simply violated Laine’s ego and sense of entitlement. When Joan Allen reads the line “it is simply beneath my dignity,” she’s evidently meant to sound resolute, but one hears it as unpleasantly dismissive. When we cut in to a lingering close-up of a tear running down her cheek, one thinks “crocodile” as much as anything else. When she compares her own predicament to Isaac Lamb, the first person ever called before HUAC, one immediately thinks “delusions of grandeur/martyrdom.” McCarthyism is justifiably one of liberal America’s favorite boogeymen, but its currency is debauched by being used too profligately, and Laine is doing exactly that here. By refusing to “name names” in this instance, she faces not imprisonment, ostracism, and unemployability, but only the loss of the chance to be the second-most-powerful person on the planet, with the consolation of a seat in the Senate and an enhanced national profile.

Eventually the film commits a final, unpardonable cheat by "vindicating" Laine and having the allegations turn out not to be true after all, allowing her to plume herself even more luxuriantly on her virtue (See? I could have honestly denied them, but I still refused to dignify them!) but by then it really makes no difference, because a terminal threshold of insufferability has already been passed. It can be pinpointed in a plot twist whereby the bigoted Representative Sheldon “Shelly” Runyon (R-IL) has gone so far, in the confirmation hearings, in baiting her over the issue of abortion that his own wife has slipped Laine the information that she herself had an abortion many years ago (which “Shelly doesn’t know”). In the subsequent scene, Runyon’s blustering has reached such a height of ass-holery that every viewer is yearning for Laine to deploy her newfound bit of dirt and devastatingly deflate him, but we know with eye-rolling certainty that she won’t because she is too piously, ostentatiously noble to do so. And she doesn’t.

 That Joan Allen received an Oscar nomination for The Contender is not at all surprising – these are the sorts of roles that are custom-written to attract the Academy’s attention, and had she in fact won I would have been disappointed but not surprised. Far more gratifying is that Jeff Bridges received a nomination for his performance as President Jackson Evans, whose performance – along with Sam Elliott’s as Chief of Staff Kermit Newman – is instrumental to the film’s redeeming qualities. Chief among these are that the film’s interest in politics is genuine and voracious. Throughout the 1990s, watching films like Dave and Wag the Dog, one could readily bemoan the passing of the great 70s tradition of political engagement, embodied both in the paranoia films like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View, and in the earnest-realist tone of works like The Seduction of Joe Tynan. As he makes clear in the DVD featurette, however, Lurie came to The Contender with the specific agenda of doing justice to the 70s tradition, and the results show. This is a film which makes no allowances for the politically un-saavy, with lines such as “I think the House has advise-and-consent power on this one” and “the people have given you Reagan-like approval numbers” zipping past with no pause for explanation. Likewise, knowledge of historical figures like Anwar Sadat, relative to Churchill, Mandela, and de Gaulle, is simply presumed. People who don’t know off the top of their head that Gerald Ford appointed Nelson Rockefeller vice-president after assuming office upon Nixon’s resignation are not this film’s core audience.

The scenes involving Evans and Newman are invariably the film’s best, what with the easy tone of familiarity with political reality that Lurie elicits from them. These are hardened political veterans with none of Laine’s moralistic illusions about politics. Evans is such a master manipulator that he can turn a sharksteak sandwich into a first-class weapon against a young neo-con Democrat who may help the Republicans; and Newman is the sort of unflappable enforcer who, seeing the whole imbroglio purely as a matter of who can out-smear who, thinks nothing of roaring “I want something EMBARRASSING! Something sexual! Little boys, midgets, that sort of thing! Cows! I don't give a goddamn!” To Laine’s sanctimonious plea that “if we do that we’re no better than he is,” he tersely replies “we are no better.” Such are the film’s moments of refreshing candor, which ring so blissfully true. When Evans first moots Laine as his vice-presidential pick saying "if it doesn't work with Hanson we'll go back to Hathaway" he does so in a tone that one can readily imagine Obama matching – sitting in the Oval Office with Joe Biden and Jack Lew, saying “if it doesn’t work with Rice we’ll go back to Kerry.”

There’s a moment early in The Contender that even more vividly shows a road not taken. When Governor Jack Hathaway (D-VA) – the scorned first-choice pick for vice-president – arrives home crestfallen after his rebuff, he finds his wife Fiona waiting for him on the front steps of the governor’s mansion, cutting a strikingly earthy figure in saggy jeans and a salmon-pink tank top. She proceeds to cattily lay into him for simply accepting his rejection and feeling sorry for himself – declaring “you’re going to take it up the ass and you want to bend over to make it easier for them?” and “you’re just going to mope around like some fourteen-year old girl who can’t get a date to the dance?” They had, after all, gone to all the trouble of arranging a car accident, which Jack would save a young woman from, thus burnishing his national profile and visibility. Fiona then does nothing less than set the whole plot of the movie in motion by fiercely informing Jack that he’s going to call up Runyon and set all the backroom scheming against Laine in motion. In short, deception having failed, they now have recourse to cronyism. She seems to understand politics far, far better than Laine Hanson.

And lastly, there's Gary Oldman's performance as Runyon. But that one will require a whole new post to itself...

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