Sometimes there’s a movie … I won’t say classic, because what’s a classic? But sometimes there’s a movie — and I’m talking about the subject of this column, here — sometimes there’s a movie, ah, it’s the movie for its time and place. It fits right in there. It’s time for Movie of the Moment.
At one point in Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 film Contact, when Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) is meeting with a presidential commission to discuss the implications of the extraterrestrial message that she has discovered, the meeting is interrupted by President Bill Clinton himself. A tall figure — conveniently, just tall enough to hide the face of the body double portraying the president — walks in behind Foster, and the movie cuts to CNN footage of the meeting, with Clinton and Foster sitting close enough to each other to be in the same shot.
It’s all computers, of course. Foster was digitally inserted into archival news footage of Clinton, using the same technology previously employed by Zemeckis in Forrest Gump. Other scenes are taken, cleverly edited, from Clinton press conferences. However, Forrest Gump’s fictional exploits were decades prior to the film’s release, and the film posited that Forrest was adjacent and/or influential to a number of historical moments, without actually making the news himself. By employing a sitting president in its fiction for the first time, Contact’s approach was more aggressive, even brash. This is happening now, the movie is saying to the audience. This is our world.
With two Oscars and an appearance in the smash hit Maverick in her back pocket, Foster would never have more Hollywood clout than she had in the late 1990s, and this is where the clout went: a blockbuster adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel about the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Dr. Ellie Arroway, a lonely and driven member of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project, is on the verge of having her funding terminated by government advisor David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) when the Very Large Array of radio satellites in New Mexico begins picking up a signal from the Vega star system. As the film’s title might suggest, plans are made for mankind to find the intelligence who sent the message.
Zemeckis’ newest film, The Walk, is very much a movie of 2015: its nostalgia, its huge special effects, and the fact that it is a remake of sorts (of the 2008 documentary Man on Wire) are things which dominate today’s blockbuster filmmaking. But no film may be more of its era than Contact, which took everything both good and bad about Bill Clinton’s presidency and distilled it down into a two-hour sci-fi blockbuster.
Bill Clinton was the first Baby Boomer president, and the 1990s were an odd reflection of the era which made him: his United States was as idealistic as in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, but it lacked a Vietnam to protest or a Nixon to rage against. Idealism as filtered through peacetime and friendly politicians becomes a theme in Contact: although there is a scene in which Ellie has to push back against a cabal represented by James Woods who think that the alien message may have a martial purpose, the scene feels more obligatory than anything else. Bill Clinton soon enough appears on screen and talks about matters of science and research, so we know whose side he is on.
Perhaps for this reason, the Clinton administration responded harshly to Contact, sending a letter from the White House Counsel to Warner Bros. complaining about the digital use of the president. The letter did not demand that the film be pulled from theaters, nor be altered in any way; in summary, the letter simply warned Warner and other studios not to do this again. The White House later said that while the First Amendment protects films in the instances of satire or parody, the movie was not using the President’s actual image for either of those purposes, and that his presence might be construed as an endorsement of the movie. This is happening now. This is our world.
After discovery of the alien message, the Very Large Array becomes the home for an enormous outdoor party. A church choir sings “Hail to Vega” to the tune of Handel’s Hallelujah chorus, Elvis impersonators sing “Viva Las Vega,” and thousands more pro- and anti-alien cults meet to share their messages. There’s a bit of misanthropy about the scene, as though Zemeckis is standing off to the side, shaking his head, and muttering about the hysterical characters in front of the camera. Indeed, one of those characters is an anti-alien cult leader played by Jake Busey, flashing that creepy grin for which his father was so well known and driving the film’s plot towards disaster. In the era of the Oklahoma City bombing and the Waco massacre, Contact is forced to acknowledge that an excess of idealism can turn toward fanaticism.
On the whole, however, the hysteria which grips this film seems a benign one indeed. Every true believer in the film who isn’t played by Jake Busey is fundamentally harmless, given equal weight to the movie as a lame Jay Leno joke. The protesters that Foster encounters are nothing compared to what one might encounter at an abortion clinic. At no point is the Very Large Array in danger of destruction from the crush of hippies; it looks more like an outdoor Comic-Con, or Lollapalooza without the drugs. It’s no surprise that a movie made by Baby Boomers, during the first Baby Boomer presidency, would see some monumental historical event leading to another Woodstock.
Of course, there was another Woodstock in real life. There were two, in fact, the 25th anniversary festival 1994 and the 30th anniversary festival in 1999. Both were heavily sponsored by companies who were selling their wares on site, and both were heavily covered by Viacom-owned MTV. This is another oddity of the 1990s: the moneyed interests that thought the hippies were just a bunch of stoned kids in the ‘60s had learned their lesson the second time around, buying and selling the new idealism as though it were any other commodity.
The ‘90s are the decade in which we were told that the new Subaru was “just like punk rock, except it’s a car,” and Contact shows this by putting Ellie’s idealism almost completely at the mercy of a mysterious billionaire played by John Hurt. Every time her dreams are nearly crushed, by Woods or Skerritt, Hurt swoops in and moves the plot forward with his enormous wealth. Then, once Ellie’s mission becomes a liability to the money men, she is accused of having been a dupe for that wealth all along. Ellie may aspire to find life amongst the stars, but in the end she’s working for the man just like everyone else.
And he is a man, because in this film they’re all men. Either consciously or unconsciously, the movie echoes Silence of the Lambs in the way that Foster’s character is pitted against an all-male power structure. Ellie struggles to keep control over her own project, even as government suits try to minimize her and Busey tries to blunt her message. Even Ellie’s allies — her staff at SETI, Hurt, and a romantic interest played by Matthew McConaughey — are all men. If not for the great Angela Bassett in a small role as the president’s chief of staff, Contact wouldn’t even pass the Bechdel test.
It’s hard to watch Foster being grilled by a skeptical Woods at a congressional hearing and not think of Anita Hill, a woman who was also questioned by an all-male power structure in a situation which demanded the public either to have faith in her, or not. Contact has a strong through-line about faith, and there’s a fair share of on-the-nose talk about faith expressed as religion; McConaughey’s character is a literal reverend, and Rob Lowe has a brief scene as a red-state consultant of the sort he often clashed with on The West Wing. However, in a way that almost no movies have done since the election of George W. Bush, there’s also a strong through-line about atheism, and believing in one’s fellow man. Ellie is a professed atheist, but she is constantly testifying her faith to other people. It’s that faith which gets her through in the dark times, which pushes her past know-nothings like Busey and Woods. Her only problem is that her faith is in something which, for the average non-scientist, is as unknowable and unprovable as the existence of God.
Contact ends on a note as hopeful as The Man From Hope himself. Ellie’s dreams are still a personal faith, but there are signs that her faith may be catching on. In that sense Contact benefits from being a movie of its time, having no knowledge of the future ugliness over Clinton’s impeachment one year later, the contested election of George W. Bush three years later, the world-altering horror four years later. Everything about the film, from the nascent cell-phone communications to the unending optimism of the Foster character, reflects a time when hope and faith were warm blankets we could use to cover the darker parts of human nature. People who lived through those times can watch and say wistfully, That was happening. That was our world.
Even if it was all just computers.
Mark Young is the editor of Cinephile City.