A Woman Alone With the Truth in ‘Contact’

Warner Bros.

For all its clever visual effects and nerdy sci-fi concepts, Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 film Contact is ultimately a story about truth. In the film, astronomer Dr. Elainor Arroway (Jodie Foster) receives a transmission from what is believed to be extraterrestrial life. The transmission contains blueprints for a machine of unknown purpose, and Dr. Arroway is chosen to pilot the Machine after the original pilot is killed. In one of Zemeckis’ characteristically impressive visual sequences, Dr. Arroway is transported through a wormhole to make first contact with an alien species. Upon returning, however, she is told that only a few seconds have elapsed on Earth, and that to everyone observing she didn’t travel anywhere. The story culminates at a government hearing where Dr. Arroway testifies about her experience, and, in a stirring monologue delivered by Foster, she must reckon with the boundary between faith and reason, where personal truth conflicts with scientific truth.

In this climactic scene Dr. Arroway sits alone at a long table, unadorned except for a microphone, a water glass, and her notes. Behind her, a crowd of spectators listen intently. Before her, a panel of government officials, some in good faith, some hostile, interrogate her amidst the imposing marble columns of a Washington, D.C. government building. This setting, where a woman must not only describe her experience but attempt to convince the panel and the public that it even happened at all, bears strong visual and thematic similarities to the real-world sexual harassment and assault testimonies of Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford.

Visually, the similarities are striking between the way Jodie Foster is framed in the scene and the most widely-circulated photographs of the Hill and Ford testimonies. Hill’s testimony, which occurred just six years before the premiere of the film, stands out in particular not just because of the white marble columns of the setting but also her position seated alone before the committee during her testimony (Ford was accompanied at her table by two attorneys). There’s an isolation and vulnerability inherent in a single person seated alone at a table in the middle of a crowded room, and in both the film and real life it gives the impression of one woman defending herself and her truth against the world.

Warner Bros.

Though many such hearings have occurred in a similar setting, few have focused on the testimony of a single woman asked to publicly defend her account of a profound experience in her life. The testimony of Ford in particular, fighting to maintain composure while publicly recounting a traumatic event previously only detailed in the privacy of a therapy session, was a particular reminder of the emotional as well as political import of the situation. In the film, Foster’s final monologue reflects a similar emotional battle. Not many actors could carry the weight of a film’s climax with a single monologue, yet Foster, eyes glistening with restrained emotion as she speaks in a quaking voice, desperate to be believed, does justice to the courage of the real-life women who have had to make a similar case for themselves.

The hearing scene arrives near the end of a narrative where a sole female scientist must continually fight to be heard and taken seriously. The #MeToo movement is about more than assault and harassment, it’s about the patriarchal culture, systems, and institutions that hold women back in all areas of society, many of which are experienced by Dr. Arroway in Contact.

When we first meet Dr. Arroway as an adult, she has arrived at the Arecibo Observatory (RIP) to begin her research into the existence of alien life. Despite being a hugely accomplished scientist, her pursuit of her passion project is met with mockery and condescension by the other (mostly male) members of her field. Chief among her detractors is David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), Arroway’s colleague and professional-ladder-climber who rejects her commitment to “pure research” in favor of more commercially and politically advantageous projects. 

Drumlin represents the ambitious, title-chasing career track often championed in a male-dominated professional world. While many women “lean in” to this type of ambition, shaping themselves to fit an idea of personal success originally molded by men, research shows that a significant number of women opt-out of career advancement. While women and men believe equally that the brass ring is within reach, women are less likely to view career dominance as an all-encompassing life goal, seeing the commitment required for a high-powered job as taking time away from personal goals like family and emotional health. So to a woman like Arroway, a job at Harvard might grant her prestige, respectability, and even power, but it would compromise her ability to pursue her life’s passion. To Drumlin, personal and professional achievement are one and the same, and it is in this way that Drumlin is positioned as the male counterpoint to Arroway throughout the film.

Warner Bros.

In the book the film is based on, author Carl Sagan modeled the character of Elainor Arroway on astronomer Jill Tarter, a scientific trailblazer and one of the few women in her field in the 60s and 70s. Even though Contact takes place in the 90s and centers on Dr. Arroway as the protagonist (notable even in 2020), she is still shown as the only female scientist in the film, and one of only two major female characters (the other being Angela Bassett’s Rachel Constantine). When she travels to Washington to brief the government on the alien signal, Drumlin, demonstrating that same uncompromising professional ambition, repeatedly co-opts attention away from his more knowledgeable female colleague. A particularly pointed moment comes when Drumlin interrupts Dr. Arroway mid-sentence during a briefing to hijack the meeting for himself. Houston, we have mansplaining. 

While Drumlin’s ambition wins out over Arroway’s reluctance to compromise her personal beliefs when he is chosen to pilot the Machine, it is ultimately Arroway who goes on the trip after Drumlin is killed. Though the film’s climax at the hearing hinges on Arroway’s lack of evidence about her journey, her character has the benefit of the fourth wall through which we, the audience, can corroborate her experience. As silent witnesses to these events, we are able to watch Dr. Arroway’s testimony and feel empathy with her frustration and confusion, and resent the dismissive and combative attitude of the film’s primary villain, Michael Kitz (James Woods). But what about in situations where we don’t have a magic window into what really happened? How might have Hill and Ford’s situation been different if the public had been capable of empathizing with them the same way the audience does with Dr. Arroway?

Warner Bros.

It is this capacity for empathy that is at the heart of allyship and the mandate to “believe women,” and while allyship of any kind is a boon, when it comes from men — especially men in positions of power and influence — it can have a significant impact on public perception. Dr. Arroway’s testimony in the hearing stands on its own, but when Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a well-known theologian within the world of the film, states clearly and unequivocally to the media that he believes her, he uses both his inherent power as a man under patriarchy and his credibility as a public personality to buttress her truth. Cinematically speaking, it’s pretty monumental for the final words spoken by a film’s primary male character to be “I, for one, believe her.” If movies are machines for empathy, then a film like Contact offers the audience the opportunity to step into the shoes of a woman, alone, fighting for the truth — both her personal truth and the factual truth — to be heard and, more importantly, believed.

by Kristen Grote

Kristen Grote (she/her) is a freelance film and culture critic based in Seattle who can’t believe women are still fridged in movies in 2020. You can follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd

1 reply »

  1. This is so beautifully and succinctly written and provides a window into the essential dysfunctionality of patriarchy. I recall Jodie standing in a lift amid taller men and straining to catch their attention in a pivotal scene from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and that visual cue placed her character of Clarisse Sterling as a lone ranger. Your essay illuminated that same real life positioning of gender roles with insight and truth.

    Like

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