Published October 1, 2000
The Contender, written and directed by Rod Lurie, is yet another example of Hollywood’s idea of politics and even more bizarrely disconnected from reality than the director’s last outing, the appalling Deterrence which I reviewed in this space a few months ago. The film’s multiple absurdities and implausibilities would take too long to spell out in full, but here is the central one. Jack Hathaway (William L. Petersen), an attractive governor with “Reagan-like approval ratings” has just risked his life to try to rescue a young woman in a car which plunged off a bridge near to where he was fishing. Hathaway becomes the people’s choice to be appointed to the vice-presidency, recently vacated by the death of the incumbent, but he is rejected by Democratic President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges), who claims to be his friend and admirer, on the grounds that his recent exploit will remind voters of Chappaquiddick.
Actually, we could stop right there. We could stop, for that matter, with the idea of Jeff Bridges as the president of the United States, which is even more absurd than that of Martin Sheen in the same role. To make things even more hilariously inept, President Jeff is given to witticisms like this one, uttered after a few frames in the White House bowling alley: “Some terrorist camp in Libya is being spared a bombing raid because I’m trying to beat my 150 average.” His idea of dumping his pal Jack Hathaway is ostensibly born of his desire for a smooth confirmation process, to be handled for some reason by the House rather than the Senate and therefore by his political arch-enemy, Republican Representative Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman). So whom does he choose in Hathaway’s place? Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), a liberal, atheist, feminist vegetarian Senator of severe appearance who wants to ban all guns not employed in stamping out “genocide” and who is immediately found to have a sex scandal in her past.
Come to think of it, that is just about the level of political acumen we might expect Jeff Bridges to display. But then you have the problem of explaining how he ever got elected in the first place. Needless to say, the film offers no such explanation, unless you count the evidence that the other side is equally clueless. Remarking on the fiendish cleverness of the opposition in nominating her, one of Rep. Runyon’s aides observes that Senator Hanson “used to be a Republican, so she can’t be too far left” and therefore has a “perfect pedigree” for the job. That is why another Republican plug-ugly promptly emerges from the shadows and darkly suggests that “We have to stab the bitch in the belly.” This they do, figuratively speaking of course, by cleverly leaking to the predatory media the news about the sex scandal, in which the Senator is alleged to have been the star of a “gang bang” while a freshman in college. She refuses to deny it under oath in hearings before Rep. Runyon’s committee. The press goes wild.
But this is Hollywood politics, not real politics, so the president’s people assure her that she simply has the choice “not to be embarrassed.” And nor is she. In fact, she stands proudly for the principle that it is her perfect right to be gang-banged if she wants to be: “If I were a man, nobody would care how many sexual partners I had in college,” she explains. “And if it’s not relevant for a man, it’s not relevant for a woman.” This is a woman who has no moral sense apart from the ideological, who believes that screwing her best friend’s husband and subsequently marrying him herself could not be included in “even the most loose definition of adultery”—since she wasn’t married herself. But, as she later says to President Jeff, “If getting laid is a common initiation for boys in the frat, then why not for us, right?”
Why not indeed! If no imaginable “contender” for the vice-presidency could be unaware of the answer to that question, it is almost the case that no imaginable Hollywood writer-director could be aware of it. It is thus the work of a moment for Mr Lurie (who, I am sorry to say, used to be a movie critic himself and obviously learned nothing in the job) to fancy that his character’s moral obtuseness takes the country by storm. For so it does when it becomes part of the process, as the president later ringingly announces to a wildly cheering Congress and swelling music on the soundtrack, of “making the American dream blind to gender.” Meanwhile, the shamefaced Rep. Runyon has slunk from the chamber like Adam in Masaccio’s famous fresco in the Brancacci chapel on having the presidential finger pointed at him and those famous words thundered: “Have you no decency, sir?” Even his wife thinks him “a second rate Joe McCarthy.”
How utterly Hollywoody! There people really do believe that we are doing something noble and inspirational “for our daughters” (the film’s dedicatees) by making it possible for them to take part in promiscuous sexual adventures with multiple partners simultaneously! What a victory for civil rights! And so, naturally, in the new, gender-blind paradise no one will think the less of them for it. I think Mr Lurie’s delusion in imagining such a thing beyond the hope of reason to penetrate, but you’ve got to give it this much: there is already no Republican with the slightest prospect of national office, as the Bush/Gore presidential race reminds us, who would ever dare to make half so forceful a speech against abortion and moral degeneracy as his Rep. Runyon does in the course of interrogating his hapless witness in committee. If Lurie’s moral vision is quite unconnected to any non-Californian reality at the turn of the millennium, the traditional one, too, appears to be receding into the distance in history’s rear-view mirror.