"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 24 October 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

The Pretender


By now, you have probably heard about The Contender, the latest attempt to recast the Lewinsky scandal as something a little more defensible than Oval Office lechery. But after the pseudo-patriotic exhortations of such Clinton apologists as Greil Marcus, Joe Ezsterhas, and the staff of Salon to regard the misuse of the Presidential staff as merely "human," The Contender finds itself presented with a dilemma unforeseeable two years ago: to create a retelling of an executive branch sex scandal that doesn't simply make the accused a victim, but, in fact, makes the accused a hero. Or, in the case of The Contender, heroine.

The Contender's plot — or rather, its agenda — has Joan Allen as the titular godless Senator Laine Hanson, who has been nominated to fill a vacant vice presidential seat by a charismatic chief executive (Jeff Bridges as a neutered Clinton, all his more tumescent appetites sublimated here into compulsive snacking). Gary Oldman is their nemesis, Illinois Congressman Shelly Runyon, whose Midwestern accentlessness critics have acclaimed as stunningly realistic — a bit of praise whose faintness becomes clear only when one realizes that the rest of the film would have us believe that Runyon's wild-eyed partisan (he calls Hanson's nomination "the cancer of affirmative action") also "fought to make hate crimes a capital offense."

Perhaps the most charitable thing that can be said for The Contender is that despite a plot whose basis in fact, let alone reality, is tenuous at best, no single scene is quite as preposterous as Gary Oldman's hairpiece. The least charitable thing that can be said about The Contender is that it is a "Goebbels-like piece of propaganda," which is what Oldman's manager, Doug Urbanski, recently told Premiere. Whether Urbanski is upset by the movie's doctrinaire simple-mindedness (most likely imposed by the Friends of Bill at Dreamworks, who distributed the film) or by the wig his client was forced to wear is an open question — as is the matter of whether a PR man as skillful as Goebbels ever would have attached his name to something as absurd as this tale of an ex-Republican, atheist, pro-choice, anti-death penalty vice-presidential nominee who is almost brought down by her refusal to respond to allegations of having participated in a sorority's ritual gang-bang. Even the Fόhrer would have asked for a re-write. (Then again, she is a vegetarian.)

If the politics of film's individual characters are inconsistent, the politics of the movie as a whole are incomprehensible. At first glance, one supposes that the screenwriter performed the protagonist's sex change in order to throw the viciousness of the process into high relief, or perhaps to somehow make literal the (now desperately empty) promise that the newly elected Clinton embodied the hopes of a generation to change the face of politics.

As it happens, however, the fact that Hanson is a woman functions on the one hand as yet another way to caricature the right as knee-jerk sexists and foaming-at-the-mouth religious zealots — and on the other hand to turn the movie into a bizzaro-world take on Michael Crichton's Disclosure. "If I were a man, nobody would care how many sexual partners I've had," Hanson insists, by way of explaining her complete silence on the allegations. "And if it's not relevant for a man, it's not relevant for a woman," a pronouncement that sounds a somewhat disingenuous note of feminism in a movie that sprung, after all, from the fact that a certain man's sexual partners became very relevant indeed.

What the movie really wants to argue, of course, is that in politics, any inquiry into anyone's private life is irrelevant. One wonders if Spielberg and company adopted the same attitude during, say, the Clarence Thomas confirmation.

This is not to say that the liberals who take this view of Clinton's misdeeds are hypocrites (though, clearly, some of them are). Rather, it's to point out a fundamental flaw in both the logic of the movie and the argument that propels it. First: What Clinton most certainly did and what Clarence Thomas was alleged to have done were not, by any stretch, youthful indiscretions, and — this is the point at which the movie switches from a wishful revision of history to an out-and-out fantasy — what Clinton did and what Thomas was accused of doing were abuses of power at best, illegal at worst. However, The Contender sets up its Clinton character so that these inconvenient nuances play no part in how we are to judge her and how the committee is supposed to judge her. But even discounting the way that one's private life may or may not illustrate one's willingness to obey the law, The Contender illustrates a way of looking at politics that is more dangerous than it is liberated.

The leitmotif of "sexual McCarthyism" suffuses the film, from its specific invocation in a conversation between Hanson and a congressman played by Christian Slater (whose ubiquitousness and significance suggest he is the House's only Democrat) to Jeff Bridge's sorry echo of Army counsel Joseph N. Welch's righteous anger at McCarthy's tactics — "Have you no sense of decency?" — during a final-reel exercise in demagoguery that essentially makes the whole plot moot. At one point, Hanson gives Webster a pedantic history lesson in the matter, citing one "Isaac Lamb" as the first person to go before the House Un-American Activities Committee and name names. "Imagine if Mr. Lamb had just told the Committee, 'Fuck you.' Imagine how much harder it would have been for them."

It hardly matters that Isaac Lamb, like most of the elements in The Contender's dreamwork of American politics, doesn't seem to exist. Hanson's tight-lipped refusal to say anything in response to Runyon's charges is actually the opposite of saying, "Fuck you." The Contender pretends that muteness is the only moral response to what is an inappropriate inquiry, but silence is not what shut McCarthy down. If one's sexual history is really not supposed to matter in how we evaluate leadership or integrity, then remaining silent on the matter just gives the inquisitor permission to keep asking the same questions of other people — and punishing them for what the answer is only presumed to be. This, after all, is the strategy the military has encouraged homosexuals to use, and look how well that's worked out for them.

Lamb, by the way, is just one of the movie's artful manipulations of American history, though by no means the most notable one. Constitutional scholars and the Christian Coalition alike would disagree with Hanson's characterization of the original intent behind the separation of church and state as "not to protect religion from government but to protect our government from religious fanaticism."

Hanson dispenses this little nugget of untruth in the course of a closing statement whose ideological incoherence boggles the mind. She is pro-flat tax and pro-choice, pro-term limits and for the beefing up of the military — but only to combat genocide. Though earlier we are told she switched parties because the Republican Party had "drifted from the ideals that I had cherished," it is hard to remember a time when the Republican party was ever for, as Hanson is, "taking every gun out of every home, period." And when it comes to what one might think to be the biggest obstacle for any Senate candidate to overcome — her proud atheism — Hanson delivers a homily in which she names as her church "this very chapel of democracy in which we sit." (In taking government as her god, Hanson joins in the worship of the state such fine liberals as Hegel, Nietzche, and Hitler.)

It is difficult to come up with a more inappropriate metaphor for the relationship of the people to their leaders, though this is one point at which The Contender's discordant snatches of ideology sing the same ear-splitting tune: The belief that a government should be treated like a church explains, finally, The Contender's insistence on silence, on blind allegiance, on the perfect infallibility of a President.

And there is another sense in which The Contender's incoherent policy call-outs blend perfectly into the chorus of "Who cares" that is the new national anthem: The lack of a unifying vision behind the politics of any one character presents a hyperbolic extrapolation of the focus group findings that now pass as major party platforms. One could criticize The Contender for its simplification of politics into a contest of personalities, but that would be to ignore the fact that this is indeed what politics has become. It's telling that in the end, Hanson's confirmation is assured by neither the discovery that the charges are false nor by the admission on the part of the Congress that the charges are irrelevant. Rather, a special joint session of is called and Jeff Bridges sweeps in — demagogue ex machina style — with a fire-breathing speech about how bad hate is, and how Laine Hanson should be confirmed not because of her political views, not because of her moral fiber, but because "a woman serving at the highest level of the executive" is simply "an idea whose time has come."

This is personality politics distilled to its very insulting essence, a motivation for political action that should be no more compelling to the American electorate (nor to the American elected) than being able to "feel your pain," having "real plans for real people," or taunting the public with "you ain't seen nothin' yet."

The problem, of course, is that we have seen plenty. Of nothing.


courtesy of Ann O'Tate


pictures Terry Colon

Ann O'Tate