Great Films You Need To See – The Candidate (1972)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout May with the theme of ‘politics’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case the Robert Redford-starring The Candidate.

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when the political process finally surrendered to the whim of the media machine and devolved into little more than a playground trade-off centred on bite-sized slogans and soundbites.

The Candidate - as relevant and contemporary now as it was at the time of its release in the dark days of Nixon

The Candidate – as relevant and contemporary now as it was at the time of its release in the dark days of Nixon

‘Playing the game’ has become a damning pre-requisite for those who seek to govern us, as Robert Redford’s idealist-turned-stooge Bill McKay comes to learn in Michael Ritchie’s expose of the business-as-usual cynicism at the empty heart of party politics.

Largely filmed as if US Senate candidate McKay is being shadowed by a documentary crew, often with the sort of overlapping dialogue you’d expect to hear under such frantic circumstances, The Candidate painstakingly (and painfully) shows how the hamster wheel of campaigning chips away at McKay’s principles.

Bill McKay (Robert Redford) - guaranteed to lose in The Candidate

Bill McKay (Robert Redford) – guaranteed to lose in The Candidate

A respected community organiser who has never registered to vote (“he’s never seen the point of it”, according to his wife), McKay is assured by campaign manager Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) that he can say and do what he wants because he doesn’t stand a chance against long-serving incumbent Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) – a deal Lucas seals by scribbling the words “you lose” on the inside of a matchbook.

However, before he can say “read my lips…”, McKay is being maneuvered from the liberal left to the safe centreground; be it getting a haircut, donning a suit and tie just like his retired governor father (brilliantly played by Melvyn Douglas), or having his views skillfully edited by media manager Howard Klein (Allen Garfield) for the purposes of ‘man of the people’ TV ads.

A better way? - Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate

A better way? – Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate

McKay may spout hot air about being stifled from saying what he really thinks (for instance, when Lucas suggests McKay’s opinion on legalised abortion that “every woman should have that right” be watered down to “it’s worth studying”), but he ultimately does what he’s told – especially when the polls indicate the gap is closing on Jarmon.

Inversely, the further McKay moves away from the principles he once had, the more accomplished and popular he becomes with the people, who spout back his slogan “A better way” in ever-growing numbers.

Father and son: John J McKay (Melvyn Douglas) and Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate

Father and son: John J McKay (Melvyn Douglas) and Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate

Much like Warren Beatty, whose under-appreciated Bulworth (1998) is The Candidate turned on its head, Redford wears his politics on his sleeve. However, he cleverly undermines his liberal poster-boy image in his portrayal of a weak-willed puppet unable and ultimately unwilling to break the mould.

When real-life political commentator Howard K. Smith cuts to the bone of McKay’s campaign by exclaiming that “the Madison Avenue commercial has taken over as his standard means of persuasion; the voters are being asked to choose McKay as they would a detergent”, the candidate can only watch with the look of someone resigned to their fate.

Robert Redford plays Bill McKay in The Candidate

Robert Redford plays Bill McKay in The Candidate

The absurdity of the situation is encapsulated late on when a frazzled McKay self-mockingly starts jumbling his speeches together into one giant meaningless soundbite, while the lost boy look he gives Lucas when he asks “what do we do now?” after their unexpected election victory is priceless.

As relevant and contemporary now as it was at the time of its release in the dark days of Nixon, The Candidate is a reminder should one be need one that the house always wins.

Advertisements

12 comments

  1. le0pard13 · May 16, 2015

    Another of the stellar 70s film. Relevant still to this day. Fine look at a great film, Mark.

  2. vinnieh · May 16, 2015

    Thanks for putting this one on my radar, excellent review.

  3. Stu · May 16, 2015

    I haven’t seen this but it sounds right up my street. Nice write-up, I shall have to add it to the list!

    • Three Rows Back · May 18, 2015

      There are always too many movies on our respective lists aren’t there?!

  4. Tom · May 18, 2015

    Great insight man. Political dramas aren’t a huge draw for me but anything with Robert Redford in it is automatically boosted a few notches. That guy could do a movie about a dancing cucumber and I’d watch it. This one sounds mighty intriguing.

    • Three Rows Back · May 18, 2015

      Cheers Tom. I love political dramas, but then I love politics which probably explains that. I’d love to see Redford and a dancing cucumber too!

  5. ruth · May 18, 2015

    I’ve enjoyed some of Redford’s political thrillers from the 70s so I should check this one out!

  6. Jordan Dodd · May 18, 2015

    Another to add to the watch-list. Thanks for putting this on my radar Mark 🙂

  7. movierob · May 20, 2015

    gotta rewatch this one soon. loved it when I saw it years ago

Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s