Views & Reviews: The Contender

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Body Politics

Joan Allen’s fans worry that she spends too much time playing wives. Her real problem is she spends too much time playing frigid wives. Nixon, The Ice Storm, Pleasantville, even John Woo’s deliriously awful Face/Off . . . movie after movie conspires to keep her the most sexually underutilized under-fifty actress in American cinema. I thought she had topped out with The Crucible, where her refusal to bed her own husband (Daniel Day-Lewis, for Christ’s sake!) was apparently the precipitating factor in the Salem witch trials. But four years later, she’s still being squeezed into that chrome-plated chastity belt. And while her delicacy and wounded gallantry are fine qualities in an actress, a frustrated observer has to wonder after a while just what’s going on underneath that dress.


So one of the genuine pleasures afforded by The Contender is the chance to see Joan Allen actually having sex . . . and in her very first scene! Okay, it’s closer to foreplay and the lighting is really dim, but there’s Saint Joan in the role of frisky Senator Laine Hanson and there’s her bare-assed husband; C-SPAN (the aphrodisiac of Washington) is playing in the background, and the two of them are giggling like homecoming-dance royalty. Very promising stuff, and when, shortly thereafter, Senator Hanson is tapped to be the next vice-president, only to see her confirmation founder on a sex scandal from her undergraduate past, you have to figure the time has come at last for Joan Allen to get down . . . or at least admit to getting down.


But The Contender has a different message to convey. It wants you to know that the question of whether Joan Allen ever got down — that is, whether her character, under the duress of sorority rush, gave some guy a blowjob while taking it up the ass from another guy — is both sexist and irrelevant. At least that’s the argument Hanson makes when she refuses to answer the charge before an inquisitorial confirmation hearing. Which doesn’t stop the charge from being raised, any more than it stops Hanson from being humiliated and degraded by her male colleagues, led by the reptilian Rep. Shelly Runyon (the wonderful Gary Oldman, peering out from under the wackiest hair plugs this side of Joe Biden). The Contender is a parable of patriotic martyrdom, the kind of movie that dramatizes its heroine’s principles by showing her jogging through Arlington National Cemetery while martial anthems crash in our ears. (You half expect the tombstones to do the Wave.) This is writer-director Rod Lurie’s subtle way of telling us that Hanson is laying down her political life for a cause every bit as important as what consigned these heroes to their graves.


When nonsense of such a high order is propounded with such show biz earnestness, it’s hard to know where to begin disentangling it. Let’s pass over the offensiveness of equating the gravity of a politician’s confirmation hearing with the deaths of American soldiers. And let’s give Lurie the benefit of the doubt and assume that he wrote this script, say, ten years ago, before the phrases “Bill Clinton” and “kiss it” began appearing together in sentences. (How else could he believe that male candidates for high office are not subjected to the same sexual scrutiny as women?) Setting all that aside, it’s still hard to overlook the fact that, even as Lurie deplores the cheapening of our public discourse, he keeps flashing back to the sexual incident in question — soft-focus shots of a lithe, smooth-skinned young woman (face unseen) getting pounded from behind. Filmmaker, heal thyself.


That reiterative moment is really the only copulation in the picture, but it does give Joan Allen’s character a kind of sexual tension by association. Could that nubile chick really be the same woman as the cool, careful senator in the silk blouse? Where does one leave off and the other begin? But The Contender is too bent on scourging the country of sexual McCarthyism to draw any erotic vibe from Senator Hanson. In fact, it wants to shame us for even imagining her with her clothes off.


More’s the pity because, for its first hour, The Contender is one of the smarter political movies I’ve ever seen. Lurie has salted the movie with sharp dialogue and knowing direction, and he has assembled a wonderful rogue’s gallery of pols, played by such crafty actors as Sam Elliott, Philip Baker Hall, William Petersen and (enacting a buffer version of Clinton) the expert Jeff Bridges. It’s a fun piece of high-toned political trash, fully as entertaining as Advise and Consent, and it doesn’t go completely gaga until the climax, when the president denounces the assembled House and Senate for their callous treatment of his nominee and calls an immediate roll-call vote on her confirmation. The routed Runyon skulks out, and the rest of the members leap to their feet like revival-tent sinners and give the big guy a standing “O.” (Cool! He just overturned the constitutional separation of powers!)


You’ll have to excuse the president for getting so hot under the collar. He’s just learned from Senator Hanson — avert your eyes if you don’t want the ending ruined — that she really didn’t do all that stuff in college, that she even has evidence to corroborate her innocence and she still won’t release it because that would mean acknowledging the accusation in the first place and that she will not do. I think I liked her better when she was a slut. At least I liked the movie better. But The Contender wants to have it both ways, to show us that a woman’s sexual history is irrelevant and, at the same time, reassure us that this particular woman is as wholesome as a meadow. It may make us feel better about Laine Hanson running the country, but it sure weakens the argument she’s so hell-bent on making. And it means Joan Allen still can’t get laid to save her life.

Louis Bayard and, Inc.