Thursday, October 02, 2008

Countdown to Election '08 - The Contender

In honor of tonight's Vice Presidential debate, as well as perhaps the last occasion in this election that most people think of either Biden or Palin as terribly important, I give you one of the few (very few) movies that center around a candidate for Vice President. (The only other one I can think of is the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate.) And this one is about a female candidate for Vice President. A female candidate for Vice President who is being thoroughly ripped apart by the old boy network of the opposing party. Life just keeps on imitating art, don't it?

The Contender

Film critic Bruce Fretts lambasted Lurie's screenplay at the time, because for one thing he thought it highly implausible that a President would wait so long (three weeks) to pick a replacement for his deceased Vice President, and then hastily pick a female candidate without thoroughly checking her background.

No comment.

Except to defend writer-director Rod Lurie, who would later go on to create the television series Commander in Chief, from the "wait so long" charge. Three weeks isn't that long, and the president (played by Jeff Bridges) has made a choice at that point, but has to go back on it because of an accident involving his first choice that brings unfortunate comparisons to Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick episode. Incidentally, though it seems like a tiny subplot that's over in the first few minutes, it comes up again in an unexpected and rather fabulous way.

Joan Allen was still somewhat a secondary player in films at this time, and she and Jeff Daniels both took second billing to Gary 'Rocks My Face Off' Oldman, who plays petulant Republican senator Shelly Runyon. Runyon leads the Congressional confirmation process, and also leads a series of attacks on her character. He's a very unpleasant and crusty conservative, and the temptation to reach through the screen and yank his badly balding head off is quite strong. Well played, Mr. Oldman. Well played, indeed.

The attacks get really nasty, and mostly revolve around some pictures that are supposedly of the candidate, Laine Hanson, engaged in a gang-bang. Her face is not visible (for reasons I won't list here), but there are witnesses who claim that it's her. The incident took place during Hanson's freshman year of college, and was said to be part of a sorority initiation. She refuses to answer the charges of immorality, even to defend herself, because it's beneath her dignity. Instead, she stands her ground remarkably well against the big bad bullies in Congress.

I may be treading in a minefield here, but as I refreshed my memory on this movie today, I couldn't help making comparisons between the events of the film and the events surrounding Sarah Palin in the past few weeks. No one - and I mean no one - feels the need to protect Laine Hanson from difficult questions or charges, either from Congress or from the press. Hanson understands that - questions about her sexual history aside - a vigorous vetting process is part of the deal, even though she's been a senator and on the national stage for several years already. Laine, like Palin, is also asked questions about how she would balance her job and motherhood - more pointedly, even, because she is specifically asked about how she would handle it if she were to become pregnant and have a child while in office.

I wouldn't ever say that Palin has not been a victim of sexism, because I do think there has been some, but there's nothing like fiction to put a little perspective on the real world. Joan Allen has a great scene at the end, where she fully explains what happened the night the photos were taken and her refusal to answer the sexual charges, and we're left wondering if her sexual proclivities in college would have even been issue if she were a man. She says that if she had answered the questions, that would have amounted to saying that it was okay to ask them in the first place.

One more thing. Despite some very impressive monologues in this film (such as Joan Allen's "chapel of democracy" speech (see below), which you can find on YouTube), the movie never really gets too precious about America and politics. There's a moment where you think it's going to go there, when a female FBI agent talks to the Chief of Staff about how important it is that a qualified woman be given a chance. And just when you think the schmaltz is coming ... Elliott metaphorically smacks the agent (and by extension, the audience). Nothing wrong with political schmaltz, in my opinion, but sometimes you need that smack on the cheek.

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