The Contender. It’s a rather good movie from 2000. It is on RTE1 television tonight. For all its manipulation of the viewers’ emotions, it manages to stay just short of sentimentality, and in so doing creates a parable for our times, not merely in the way in which the film-makers intended, but also in relation to an Irish political controversy that is now more than a year old but which raised significant issues of principle still relevant today.
In the movie, Jeff Bridges plays Jackson Evans, Democratic President of the US, who nominates Senator Laine Hanson played by Joan Allen to replace his deceased Vice President. A ferocious smear campaign orchestrated by machiavellian Republican Congressman Sheldon Runyon, played by an unrecognisably sinister Gary Oldman, threatens to de-rail the nomination. However, Hansen declines to respond to the allegations of college sexual shenanigans. It’s rather a fine movie, with several interesting subplots counterpointing the main theme of the movie, even if the film-makers’ politics are obvious – the Democrats are the good guys; the Republicans are the bad guys; and good triumphs over evil in the final reel.
Yet, for all that the politics are predictable, there is an important issue of principle at the movie’s heart. It relates to the dilemma faced by Hansen. For her, it was a matter of principle: the question should not have arisen in the way that it did; it was not for her to answer it. Runyon’s point was that Hansen could easily have laid the controversy to rest by denying the allegations and proving the denial, but she stuck to her principles, pointing out that they only mean something when you stick to them when it’s inconvenient.
More than a year ago, the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, claimed that Frank Connolly, a former journalist who had become Executive Director of the Centre for Public Inquiry had travelled to Columbia under a false passport on IRA business. The allegations consumed the Centre, which has since become defunct. In many ways, Frank Connolly was in the same position as Joan Allen’s Senator Hansen: the world professed to believe that the allegations would have gone away if only he (like Hansen in the face of Runyon’s machinations) had simply made a statement not merely denying but refuting the details of the Minister’s allegations.
He should not have had to do so. There is an important principle at stake here; and Connolly’s refusal to prove that he wasn’t in Columbia asserts it. The principle relates to the democratic state’s legitimate sphere of action, to constitutional issues such as the separation of powers, trial in due course of law, and the presumption of innocence. There are checks and balances on the coercive power of the State. When Connolly found himself on the receiving end of that power, and without the benefits of those checks and balances, he was in exactly the same position as Senator Laine Hansen: he was being forced to prove himself innocent, when as a matter of principle he should not have had to do so.
The centrepiece of the movie is a stirring speech in which the President, addressing Congress, finally defends Hansen’s assertion of her principles, and demands that they confirm her as Vice President, which they do, by acclaim. In typical Hollywood style, we are always on Hansen’s side, not Runyon’s, willing her not to cave in to his increasing pressure, cheering for her at the end of the President’s speech to Congress, and exulting in her final confirmation. Real life – without a hollywood director to tug at our heartstrings – is messier. My memory of the Connolly controversy is that the feeling that he (like Hansen) must have had something to hide made public opinion uneasy, and there was little welcome in that climate for an assertion of principle. Had a screening of the movie coincided with the controversy, the viewing public might very well have been on Hansen’s side watching the movie, but would probably not have been on Connolly’s side watching the tv news immediately afterwards.
Near the end of the movie, we learn that Hansen all along had the means to refute Runyon’s allegations, and we applaud her all the more for sticking to her principles. Whether or not Frank Connolly had the means to refute Michael McDowell’s allegations, his refusal to do so asserted an important democratic principle. Indeed, even if the reason for his refusal has nothing to do with principle, he is nevertheless entitled to the benefit of it, because we all are. From this perspective, I don’t care whether the Minister was right either in the substance of his allegations against Connolly or in the means by which he chose to publicise them. Rather, I care that Connolly should still have been entitled to assert that the Minister’s allegations should not have arisen in the way that they did; that it was for the state to prove, rather than for him to disprove, the allegations; and that we should all react as positively to this assertion of principle in the real world as we do to Laine Hansen’s assertion of the same principle in The Contender.