Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Hollywood's "moderate Republicans"

In the midst of the Alito (or as Sen. Ted Kennedy says, "Alioto") confirmation hearings, I was coincidentally drawn to fix a snack and fire up the home theatre with... a movie about confirmation hearings!

The Contender (2004), directed by Rod Lurie, is the final September 10th-era political thriller, arguably the best since All The President's Men and before The Manchurian Candidate remake starring Denzel Washington. The performances are the film's greatest strength. Sen. Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) is picked by President Jack Evans (in a winning performance by Jeff Bridges) to replace his friend and Vice President, who dies in office. Republican Rep. Sheldon Runyon (Gary Oldman) chairs the House committee that will confirm the President's nominee. The main characters are joined by a well-cast roster of supporting players, including William Petersen (in his final pre-C.S.I role) as a rival Vice Presidential aspirant, Sam Elliot as President Evans's Chief of Staff Kermit Newman, and an intense yet understated cameo performance by Mariel Hemingway.

While the performances are first-rate, the political plot is incoherent. Its most politically authentic moment comes when the Evans administration is arguing with Hanson about how far to take the back-and-forth partisan dirty tricks:

Laine Hanson: If we do that, we'll be as bad as them.
Kermit Newman (furiously): We are as bad as them!

In The Contender, the Democrats are the good guys, while the Republicans are represented primarily by Rep. Runyon, power-drunk and graceless (in a fine, quirky caricature by Oldman). Runyon is determined to torpedo Sen. Hanson's nomination in favor of Petersen's Democrat governor character.

Politically, everyone in this movie is on the left — make that far left, even the Republicans:

  • One of Republican Rep. Shelly Runyon's proudest achievements was lobbying to make hate crimes a federal offense. In real life, Republicans would rather let hate crimes come under existing laws against harassment, murder, vandalism, etc.

  • Laine Hanson's father, a retired Republican governor, complains wearily that teachers are supposed to "teach, not preach" when Laine's toddler son says his public school teacher told him that Jesus made everything. (Not to worry, my son also believes in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, Laine tells her dad.) That's what you get in the public schools, Laine says. Huh? Are you kidding? Some public school teachers won't even say "under God" when reciting The Pledge of Allegiance, let alone give religious instruction in the classroom.

  • Democrat Rep. Reginald Webster secretly opposes his fellow Dem's nomination, telling Republican Rep. Runyon that her views are better suited to "the other side of the aisle." Sen. Hanson is portrayed as a Republican who switched parties, and therefore not "too liberal." Yet one has trouble imagining why any Democrat would think Hanson was too much like a Republican after hearing her closing statement in the movie's dramatic climax:

I stand for a woman's right to choose.

Nothing "too Republican" here...

I stand for the elimination of the death penalty.

...or here.

I stand for a strong and growing Armed Forces because we must stomp out genocide on this planet, and I believe that that is a cause worth dying for.

OK, Rep. Webster, she does sound almost like George W. Bush on this point.

I stand for seeing every gun taken out of every home -- period.

Yah, sure, a Republican who wants to repeal the Second Amendment.

I stand for making the selling of cigarettes to our youth a federal offense.

Forget the drug dealers, lets have our U.S. District Attorneys prosecute real the menace to society: convenience store clerks.

I stand for term limits and campaign reform.

And, Mr. Chairman, I stand for the separation of Church and State, and the reason that I stand for that is the same reason that I believe our forefathers did. It is not there to protect religion from the grasp of government but to protect our government from the grasp of religious fanaticism.

This one turns Ronald Reagan's 1982 quote inside-out and upside down: "The first amendment was not written to protect people and their laws from religious values; it was written to protect those values from government tyranny."

Now, I may be an atheist, but that does not mean I do not go to church. I do go to church. The church I go to is the one that emancipated the slaves and gave women the right to vote. It gave us every freedom that we hold dear. My church is this very Chapel of Democracy that we sit in together, and I do not need God to tell me what are my moral absolutes. I need my heart, my brain, and this church.

This one validates Dennis Prager, who says that people without religious faith think of government as their religion (as opposed to those evangelical fanatics without a heart or a brain).
Unfortunately, the unanimous leftward tilt to the politics of every character in the story make it difficult to believe that anyone involved would oppose Laine Hanson's nomination. This undermines the believability of the entire movie, but it's still a guilty pleasure for any political junkie. (On that note, 2004's The Manchurian Candidate re-does the policy discussion led by Joan Allen in this movie, with Meryl Streep playing the powerful Senator Eleanor Shaw. Allen was believable, but Streep nails this and other political scenes in the movie with a Hillary-like presence.)


rick674 said...

On separation of Church and State, Ronald Reagan did get it wrong. The framers of the Constitution, specifically Jefferson, knew quite well, of something called the tyranny of the masses. The First amendment was written with exactly the intention of protecting people from having "religious values" foisted upon them.

Matt said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Matt said...

The establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment were written to prevent the establishment of a national denomination, and to prevent government interference in the free exercise of religion. As Jefferson stated in a letter to Benjamin Rush in 1800:

"[T]he clause of the Constitution which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity through the United States; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians and Congregationalists...they believe that any portion of power confided to me will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly."

Further, during the sumer of 1789 when the First Amendment was being drafted, according to the Congressional Record, not one of the ninety members of Congress who debated it mentions "protecting" the people from religious values. If this was the original intent of the First Amendment, why was it never mentioned?

Indeed, Jefferson himself said, "God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?"

It was the Supreme Court in 1947, in the case Everson v. Board of Education, that famously misrepresented Jefferson on this issue, leading today to exactly what Jefferson feared: "we have removed the conviction that these liberties are a gift from God."