‘The Contender’ Lit Me on Fire. Now It’s a Cringe Factory.

Why I revisited “The Contender” this summer time is neither right here nor there as a result of it might have occurred at any time, such is the true property that film takes up in my mind — which means I used to be at all times revisiting it someplace in my thoughts, although it had been greater than 20 years since I’d seen it. But this film has been informing me, vexing me and haunting me since. Beware the flicks you watch as you crest the height of your coming-of-age, on the actual second while you’re positive you realize all the pieces.

A reminder, or an introduction: “The Contender,” from 2000, is the story of Senator Laine Hanson, performed by Joan Allen, who’s up for affirmation as vp when the playful however supersmart lame duck president (Jeff Bridges) loses the prior V.P. to dying and wishes to switch him within the ultimate months of his time period. The president is set to place a girl in workplace, not simply because she’s a girl — although, that — however as a result of he doesn’t just like the Republicans bullying him into nominating the extra centrist Governor Hathaway from Virginia, who lately dived into the Potomac to unsuccessfully save a girl who had careened off a bridge.

We meet Senator Hanson when the president calls her on the cellphone to return in. She is, at that individual second, on her again on her desk, having intercourse along with her husband, who works for her. They’re each nonetheless carrying their fits; it’s the center of a workday, in spite of everything.

As the affirmation hearings proceed, led by a Republican prude, Senator Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), the committee digs up one thing treacherous from Hanson’s previous: She, the daughter of a governor, allegedly had group intercourse as a part of her sorority hazing in school. This supposedly happened in entrance of individuals, at a celebration, although pictures present simply a physique, not a face. Runyon and his committee obtain this information with glee, leaking it to a tabloid and citing this scandal at each alternative. The committee won’t, Runyon insists, affirm her simply because she’s a girl, and he’ll particularly not affirm her due to the alleged group intercourse. The viewer is handled to phrases like “sexual McCarthyism” and “ideological rape of all women” and “cancer of affirmative action.”

Now, Hanson will neither affirm nor deny the incident. Instead, she insists it’s beneath her dignity to reply questions on her intercourse life. Not even when she’s requested by the committee, not even when she’s requested by the president’s aides, not even when she is ambushed on cable information. Instead, the film asks us to think about if a man would ever be requested these questions.

Well, I left the theater on hearth. It was two years since I had purchased the newspaper with the whole Starr Report in it and Could. Not. Believe. How. Dirty. The. New York. Times. Could. Be. I had my first job, an internship at a movie firm the place I used to be requested by a man in finance if I used to be a “full-service intern.” I had watched the President Clinton intercourse scandal unfold, and I already had the lived expertise to surprise what would develop into of the lady at its heart and why folks with the best quantity of energy may be rooted for as they decimate the folks with the least.

All this to say that I remembered this film as being one of many good guys. I remembered it as academic, as progress — no, I remembered it as a revolution. So think about how surprising it was to look at it once more for the primary time in twenty years and understand what it really was.

The film is laced with interactions between males and Hanson that appear both innocuous (“You look beautiful,” the male White House chief of workers tells her earlier than a information convention) or microaggressive (“Is that what you’re going to wear?” the male press secretary asks her earlier than the identical occasion). Larry King expresses shock when the senator chooses Thomas Jefferson because the historic chief she most admires. “A man?” he asks. Someone says to the president about her, “I’m just watching out for your girl.” In her listening to, Hanson is requested if she would have extra kids, and if she might nonetheless have kids, and what ought to the American folks consider a vp who would possibly go on maternity go away? She solutions these questions; she tells them she practices contraception. Those questions are the general public’s enterprise, apparently.

Are you confused? So was I. Those interactions appear completely, rightfully planted as setups in a film concerning the sexist approach we speak to ladies, proper? Well, I don’t know! That similar film exhibits Hanson angrily warning Runyon in a non-public dialog that “if there’s one thing you don’t want, it’s a woman with her finger on the button who isn’t getting laid.”

And, nicely, what about the truth that nearly each girl on this film is horrible? Governor Hathaway’s spouse, upon listening to that he’s been handed over, berates him in a approach that makes Lady Macbeth appear like Tami Taylor. Even our sainted Senator Hanson, we study, is married to her finest buddy’s ex-husband, and there was some overlap — the would-be V.P. is a homewrecker! The males within the film are far much less tinged with complication — Runyon simply needs the nation to be a Puritan state as a result of he loves righteousness. The president simply needs to maneuver the nation ahead as a result of he loves progress. My query upon rewatching the film shouldn’t be solely: How did I miss all this? But: How have been the great elements of the film ever sufficient for me?

Those male characters are extra totally drawn than Hanson herself — a character whose heroism lies in the truth that she by no means really says a lot. The finest approach for a girl to proceed, if she needs dignity and success, in response to this film, is to do it quietly.

As I waded via the microaggressions and slights with out ever understanding for positive in the event that they have been intentional — it’s unclear if the film supposes that it’s fallacious to inform ladies that they give the impression of being stunning at work — I remembered that in some way this story was put into a man’s fingers (it was written and directed by Rod Lurie) and lauded as a corrective to the Clinton scandal, which means that it appeared to bolster the concept a individual’s non-public life is his or her non-public life.

Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen, heart), flanked by her counsel (Mike Binder, left) and the White House chief of workers, performed by Sam Elliott. Credit…Gino Mifsud/DreamWorks Pictures

I’ve been working in journalism since I left school. I do know that work doesn’t age nicely — that there’s a direct one-to-one change on how related an article is when it’s printed to how a lot you’re not going to brag that you just wrote it years later — with strains you wrote only for humor’s sake and questions on a individual’s previous, physique or addictions that you just hadn’t had the sense to understand have been out of bounds. Or even when they technically weren’t, that it is best to have averted them totally nonetheless out of decency. I wrote articles the place I believed I used to be on the correct facet of historical past and it typically took seeing them in print, or revisiting them years to later, to understand how horrific my factors of view have been.

But that’s not my essential level right here; my essential level is that I sat watching “The Contender” in 2000, on the age of 24, pondering that if a direct response to the sexism of the second might land in theaters, that we had reached peak progress so far as feminism was involved.

But what was I cheering? What was that film actually about? Was it about how ladies are acquired on this planet? Or was it about not being allowed to ask Bill Clinton about his intercourse life? Wait, was this a pro-Clinton film ultimately?

And but, it was progress — on the time, not less than. To hear Hanson say that there have been questions you couldn’t ask her, that her life was private to her, that the world didn’t have the correct to evaluate her for it, that was one thing I’d by no means seen earlier than. It left me reeling with chance. But I didn’t know that at some point, I’d not have the ability to discern if its microaggressions have been intentional. I didn’t know that at some point I’d learn my very own work and understand that tales I had set forth as examples of the way in which the world strikes ahead could be offensive in their very own proper. The level is that if you happen to reside lengthy sufficient, even probably the most progressive concept will likely be anachronistic, and also you’ll be the jerk who as soon as put it on the market. We name that every one sorts of dangerous issues right now, however, the truth is, that’s really what’s known as progress.

Back then, I didn’t think about there was any extra progress available. I arrived right here, in 2021, now discovering “The Contender” adorably, offensively retro and questioning if what I consider as subversively progressive now will appear old school in 20 years. I puzzled what I’d consider this film if I have been youthful and compelled to look at it. I’d see how there have been no nonwhite characters or sense of intersectionality; I’d watch the central character — the one on the film poster — do nothing and say nearly as a lot for an hour-and-a-half and I’d flip it off.

Progress, it seems, shouldn’t be one thing to reach at; its most strong presentation is the understanding that you just’ll by no means attain it. No, it’s the understanding that you just’ll by no means attain it and that you just can’t predict why from the second you’re standing in. In that approach, “The Contender” is the essence of progress. So are my dumb outdated journal profiles; so is that this essay, in all probability. That’s what progress is. It’s the power to have a look at what you really liked 20 years in the past and regard it with disgust.

Some excellent news is that, in a small pocket of the world that a film like “The Contender” represents, issues are getting higher. That you shouldn’t ask a girl about her intercourse life when she’s up for a job is now one thing you may greet, with certainty, as an outdated concept; a girl might be given 1000’s of phrases price of house in a newspaper nowadays, and she or he’ll nonetheless file with extra phrases than assigned (that is a public apology to my editor).

What excellent news it’s to seek out “The Contender” to be old school and quaint. In the film a lot of the horrible work carried out each to undermine Hanson and to substantiate her as a result of she’s a girl is completed within the title of “our daughters.” It seems that it’s important to have so many males embracing progress within the title of their daughters (which is sweet) earlier than they’re berated into pushing for progress as a result of it’s simply what you do (which is best).

In the top, the film doesn’t have the braveness of its convictions. It permits Hanson to take a seat with the president on the again garden of the White House, smoking a cigar the president fingers her, as she lastly reveals to him what the film has seemingly promised it wouldn’t resolve: That the story wasn’t true. That she didn’t have intercourse with these boys; that it was simply city legend. A film the place she doesn’t need to ever reply the query was an concept whose time had not but come.

Here is how “The Contender” finishes: With a rousing speech by the president to Congress — a Congress that loves him a lot that every facet cheers for nearly each phrase. The president publicizes that Senator Hanson has withdrawn her title within the curiosity of constructing the transition peaceable, however he won’t settle for the withdrawal. No, the president strikes for speedy affirmation, which it’s clear he’s going to get, if everybody might cease cheering for him for a minute. I remembered it as a shifting scene. Now, all I might assume was that she had withdrawn her title for a cause. This wasn’t what she had needed in any respect, however nobody requested her as a result of nobody actually cared.