Screenplay : Rod Lurie
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Joan Allen (Laine Hanson), Gary Oldman (Shelly Runyon), Jeff Bridges (President Jackson Evans), Sam Elliott (Kermit Newman), Christian Slater (Reginald Webster), William L. Petersen (Jack Hathaway), Philip Baker Hall (Oscar Billings), Saul Rubinek (Jerry Tolliver), Mike Binder (Lewis Hollis), Robin Thomas (William Hanson)
Writer/director Rod Lurie's The Contender is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington remade for the Clinton era. Both films feature idealist heroes who are faced with an overpowering political machine that attempts to crush them and their ideals. They are both films that celebrate American democracy while simultaneously demonizing the corruption in the U.S. government that keeps democracy from fully functioning. Thus, they are both broadly populist message movies.
The Contender is about a female Senator named Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) who is picked by the Democratic President, Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges), to fill the office of vice president after the death of his second-in-command. Evans feels that Hanson is a solid choice, even though she recently switched from the Republican to the Democratic party. He is also enthusiastic about the fact that she is a woman, thus his "swan song" as he leaves the Presidency will be putting the first woman into high office.
But trouble brews ahead in the form of Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), a hypocritical, right-wing fanatic who will head the confirmation hearings. Runyon wants Governor Jack Hathaway (William L. Petersen) to fill the vice presidency, and he is determined to keep Hanson out of the office by any means necessary. After conducting a separate investigation, Runyon's team finds an appropriately salacious allegation in the form of photographs and eye-witness testimony of Hanson's having taken part in an orgy in college.
When faced with these allegations, Hanson takes the high road and refuses to even comment on them, much to the consternation of the President and his chief of staff, Kermit Newman (Sam Elliott). Even when the accusations begin to snowball into suggestions that she was paid for sex, it is Hanson's position that these are questions that should never be asked. Thus, to respond to them in any way (even to deny them) would justify their integrity and usefulness in the political process, which is something she refuses to do.
Runyon relies heavily on a junior representative named Reginald Webster (Christian Slater), a Democrat who does not want to see Hanson confirmed because he does not believe in her ability to fill the office. Webster is a decent guy who is simply "following his heart," but one of the points the movie makes clear (right up until the very end, that is) is that following one's heart in American politics is a surefire way to be manipulated to the wrong ends.
The Contender is a slick and certainly timely film, coming as it does after the Clinton-Lewinsky debacle and landing right in the middle of a Presidential campaign in which questions about private morality in high office are thin ice just waiting to crack. Yet, Lurie sets up his ideological battle in such transparent terms that his film, although consistently entertaining, runs the risk of triteness. Throughout, Hanson is an absolute rock of integrity; even when faced with horribly embarrassing accusations about her past, she sticks to her own high road and refuses to deviate in any way, consequences be damned.
On the other hand, Runyon is such a caricatured hypocrite that he becomes almost cartoonish. Gary Oldman, decked out in thick-rimmed glasses, bad suits straight out of the Watergate era, and a balding dome of erratic, curly hair, does another one of his trademark disappearing acts into a character. Unfortunately, his character is so broadly defined and transparently evil (in an extremist right-wing kind of way) that his impact quickly grows thin, even when delivering an over-the-top "baby killer" diatribe against Hanson's pro-choice stance during the hearing. And, just to make sure there is no way we could possibly find him anything other than loathsome, Lurie also makes sure that Runyon is a casual misogynist.
Still, Lurie's film has a certain amount of resonance, and it is a reminder of why we should still care about the political scene, even during the good times when politics don't seem to matter. In its emphasis on the importance of Washington, it is deeply connected to Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, yet there are differences that are just as deep and that point up why The Contender never works in the populist manner that Lurie obviously intended.
In Capra's jingoistic tale, James Stewart's Jefferson Smith was vulnerable because of his naivete. In The Contender, Laine Hanson is vulnerable because of a questionable sexual past. Thus, the difference in idealism between the two films is brought immediately to the surface and shows how they are distinct products of the time in which they were made. While Capra and other members of the Popular Front were worried about the undue influence of big business and its ability to crush the individual democratic spirit, Lurie is most concerned with the conflation of public and private in the lives of professional politicians.
While the idealism in Mr. Smith is all about everyday people asserting themselves through virtue and decency against the corrupting, soulless influence of capitalism run amok, The Contender is about the need for politicians to not have to answer questions about their personal lives. Both are valid and worthy arguments, yet the difference between them is immense because it shows that The Contender is a film committed to American democratic ideals that is never about everyday Americans. Rather, it is strictly about politicians. Capra's film was for the people. Lurie's is for the politicos.
©2000 James Kendrick