After the death of the vice president, Democratic President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) nominates Ohio Sen. Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) to be the new V.P. in The Contender (2000).
However, she faces anything but a smooth confirmation process. Illinois Rep. Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman, who also produced the film), the Republican chair of the judiciary committee, would A) rather Evans nominate Virginia Gov. Jack Hathaway (William Peterson), considered a hero for his attempts to save a woman whose car went off a bridge; and B) is determined to sabotage Hanson’s nomination.
Initially, his motivations are primarily political. He considers Hanson, a former Republican and daughter of a former governor, a traitor for switching parties (Plus, he’s still smarting from having lost the election to Evans).
But then he receives material purportedly showing Hanson engaged in sexual escapades in college. He proceeds to drag her reputation through the mud by both direct and indirect means.
He feigns disgust that somebody would publish such “nefarious and sleazy innuendos” and “encourages” the American people to boycott the online report, yet spells out the URL of the website that released the information when he says he assumes she’ll take legal action.
Chief of Staff Kermit Newman (Sam Elliott) wants Hanson to do what’s in the best interest of the party.
“Why don’t you just deny it?” he asks at one point.
“It is simply beneath my dignity,” she replies.
Later, he presses her to just confess.
Hanson refuses to respond to the allegations, arguing— correctly— that not only is her past no one’s business, but that responding to the charges would suggest that it was acceptable for the questions to be asked in the first place.
“And it isn’t,” she tells Evans at one point.
As she tells Delaware Rep. Reginald Webster (Christian Slater) a freshman Democrat on the committee, “I can’t respond to the committee’s lightly veiled accusations because it’s not okay for them to be made.”
She also tells him that if she were a man, no one would care how many sexual partners she had in college; and that if it’s not relevant for a man, it’s not relevant for a woman.
She has several steps available to end this personal nightmare, but chooses to keep fighting.
“Principles only mean something if you stick by them when they’re inconvenient”, she says.
Runyon uses various means to drag Hanson’s reputation through the mud, yet had once done decent and honorable things.
“I was never prouder when you fought to make hate crimes a capital and federal offense,” his wife, Maggie (Irene Ziegler), says. “…And now, everything you’ve ever achieved will be eliminated because, with this horrible filth, you’ll go down as a second-rate Joe McCarthy.”
But just as Runyon was once a man of principles, Hanson has a major indiscretion in her past, unrelated to the accusations of her activities in college. One person affected by that indiscretion is unnecessarily subpoenaed to testify before an open session of the committee, when it could easily have deposed her behind closed doors.
For his part, Webster, who has ideological differences with Hanson, begins to have “buyer’s remorse” about what the committee is doing to her. At one point, he shares with her a document the committee received, telling her, “I beg you, senator, to deal with this.”
Evans, who’d previously met with Webster at the White House, sees potential in him.
“He’s misguided, but he’s got something,” he says to both Newman and Hanson.
The Contender being a political thriller, there are a number of twists and turns. As it turns out, Laine Hanson’s past isn’t the only thing being investigated, and it’s not just her political future at stake.
In The Making of a Political Thriller, a DVD documentary about the film, Oldman said the quality of the writing appealed to him.
“It reminded me of a 70s script,” he said. “It has the flavor of All The President’s Men.”
Writer/Director Rod Lurie, who wrote the part of Laine Hanson specifically for Joan Allen, admitted in the same documentary to being a political film junkie, saying he was obsessed with films like All The President’s Men, The Candidate and The parallax View.
The Contender is a well-written political thriller, populated with three-dimensional characters. It’s well worth checking out.
Copyright 2017 Patrick Keating.