October 19, 2000

Sex, Lies, and Politics: Take Two

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With the November elections less than a month away and the Clinton sex scandal still fresh in our memories, the political thriller, The Contender, may seem timely. Unfortunately if you are already bored by the presidential debates and the details of politicians’ personal lives, the film might be overkill.

As President of the United States, Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) is faced with the dilemma of choosing a new vice president to replace his former one, who passed away. He has narrowed his choices down to two candidates: Jack Hathaway, a seemingly virtuous Democrat, or Laine Hanson, a female senator. Desiring to leave behind some kind of legacy, the President chooses Senator Hanson (Joan Allen) because she is a woman. However, Hanson’s confirmation as vice President gets complicated when Shelley Runyon (Gary Oldman), a conservative GOP representative, tries to prevent her from taking office by investigating her past. He scrapes up allegations that Hanson was involved in group sex at a fraternity as a freshman in college. The rest of the film follows this central controversy as Hanson fights for her position as vice president.

The plot is not nearly as interesting as the themes presented in the film. In light of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the film reflects the media and the public’s interest in politicians’ private lives. At its best, the film provides a discourse on the importance of a politician’s morality. Is a man or woman with sexual indiscretions fit for public office? Is it the public’s business in the first place? Hanson remains staunchly opposed to talking about her past with the press or even those close to her.

Another strength of the film is its discussion of the double standard in society and government. At times the discrimination is obvious: Laine Hanson’s job is threatened because she allegedly participated in sex with more than one partner. It is hard to believe that had a man been in Hanson’s place, his behavior would have merited such outrage in Washington, D.C. Yet, sexism is also explored subtly. Men comment on Hanson’s physical appearance repeatedly, the president refers to his secretary as “my girl,” and, apart from Laine Hanson, there are no substantial female characters in the film.

The film’s cast is filled with seasoned actors and rounded out with small roles played by Christian Slater and Phillip Baker Hall. Jeff Bridges is believable as a president who values the perks of his job such as food on demand as much as the Middle East peace process. Joan Allen fits easily into the role of Laine Hanson, but perhaps she does too easily. Like the rest of the characters, Hanson is an amalgam of contemporary politicians who have become so familiar through television. But The Contender’s tendency to imitate real life takes away from its originality.

For all The Contender’s criticism of phony politicians, in the end, the film fails to be authentic itself. In the final scene,the President delivers a speech on the importance of having virtuous politicians. Thus the film ends leaving a taste of propaganda in the audience’s mouths. What is more disappointing is that the President, who has shown himself to be less than ethical throughout the film, gets the last word. Writer-director Rod Lurie has written other political dramas (i.e., Deterrence) and should know better.

Before the credits roll, the film is dedicated to ”our daughters.” I wonder how seriously we should take the dedication when the film is best enjoyed as a piece of entertainment and not a piece of propaganda.

Archived article by Diana Lind