The Contender a Secular Parable by Annie Laurie Gaylor (November 2000)

November 2000

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

The last movie to show a woman admitting unbelief before a Congressional hearing was “Contact,” which realistically depicted the shock wave attending a revelation that the Jodie Foster character is an atheist.

“The Contender,” written and directed by Rod Lurie, takes this scenario one step further. Senator Laine Hanson, portrayed by Joan Allen, volunteers her atheism, after undergoing a brutal nomination hearing as a vice presidential contender dogged by charges of participating in an orgy while in college.

The shell-shocked Senator maintains a composed, steadfast silence, refusing to dignify the charges, or even discuss them with the President. The lurid scandal, complete with photographs, escalates in the news and over the Internet, thanks to the overt machinations and leaks of the rightwing chair of the Senate hearings, Cong. Shelly Runyon. A nearly unrecognizable Gary Oldman is appropriately hateful as a ruthless Kenneth Starr stand-in.

The movie’s premise is that the hard-as-nails Democratic president (a convincing Jeff Bridges) wants to go down in history for choosing the first woman vice president, so decides to somewhat inexplicably stand by his controversial woman nominee.

Atheism rears its head during the nomination hearings when it is revealed that Senator Hanson was once quoted on the subject of the separation of church and state, saying “fairy tales” should not be legislated.

Apparently figuring she has nothing to lose, Hanson acknowledges at the hearing’s conclusion that yes, she is an atheist. She eloquently states her strong support for strict gun control, abortion rights, the Establishment Clause and her opposition to the death penalty.

“The Contender” of course is a thinly-veiled examination of the ethics of the Clinton impeachment proceedings. Nothing is black and white, however. The vice presidential nominee is a bit hard to understand herself, presented as the Republican daughter of a well-known governor who switches party allegiance some time after being elected to the Senate. Her vote–when she was still a Republican–to impeach, but not convict Clinton (“He was responsible, but not guilty”) is brought out at the hearings, just to confuse matters.

What’s especially nice is that screenwriter Rod Lurie wrote the part of the vice presidential nominee expressly for actress Joan Allen, to give her a starring vehicle after she has been typecast as “the wife” (Patricia Nixon, for instance) and “the mother” in many of her previous roles. Allen’s delicate, almost brittle beauty and reserved air lend authenticity to her portrayal of the besieged, enigmatic character.

In light of the discouraging August 14 Reuters poll showing that an atheist vice presidential nominee would place at the bottom of the totem pole with voters, it’s especially gratifying that Lurie made his main character a forthright atheist. He is also to be lauded for making a movie that champions feminism and denounces the double standard.

Lurie’s cautionary tale on the public’s right to know all about the personal lives of candidates (“Sometimes you can assassinate a leader without firing a shot”) will certainly satisfy those of us who found Ken Starr’s abuse of power and the Clinton impeachment to be one of the most painful endurance contests in modern political history.

Some of the film’s over-the-top, Capra-esque touches seem jarring, such as the final scene in which patriotic music plays loudly out of nowhere as the President makes an impassioned pitch for his nominee. Thinking about it afterward, I decided Lurie deliberately, commendably set out to make a movie that is neither cynical nor realistic, but which serves as just plain old-fashioned wishful thinking. “The Contender” is a secular parable.

Talk about fairy tales! But what a lovely pipe dream.

Freedom From Religion Foundation