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

Review – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

After seriously dropping the hammer with the disappointing Thor: The Dark World, Marvel has got its mojo back with this superheroic espionage thriller that packs a real biff, pow and bang.

Although on paper a two-dimensional relic of 1940s flag-waving propaganda comics, Captain America's onscreen adventures are fast becoming the Marvel movies to look out for

Although on paper a two-dimensional relic of 1940s flag-waving propaganda comics, Captain America’s onscreen adventures are fast becoming the Marvel movies to look out for

On its 2011 release, Captain America: The First Avenger was an unexpected pleasure, skillfully mixing pulpy action and period nostalgia with a World War Two setting that perfectly suited the old school heroics of Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, a great fit for the role).

His appearance alongside Iron Man, Thor et al in Avengers Assemble (as it was called over here) was largely about him trying to come to terms with the modern world and it’s an issue that inevitably permeates through The Winter Soldier.

Steve 'Cap' Rogers (Chris Evans) forms a valuable friendship with fellow veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Steve ‘Cap’ Rogers (Chris Evans) forms a valuable friendship with fellow veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

However, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley (who also wrote the first movie) deserve a lot of credit for crafting a story that transcends fish-out-of-water narrative tropes and instead gives the character something he can really get his shield stuck into.

While the bad guys he’s fighting this time around aren’t as clear-cut as the uber-Nazis he was battling in The First Avenger, Cap’s inherent goodness and staunch belief in the enduring power of freedom are traits that prove just as necessary in The Winter Soldier.

Cap (Chris Evans) expresses his concerns as to the direction S.H.I.E.L.D is taking to Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Cap (Chris Evans) expresses his concerns as to the direction S.H.I.E.L.D is taking to Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Since being thawed out from cryogenic stasis at the end of The First Avenger, Rogers has allied himself with S.H.I.E.L.D, the labyrinthine spy and law-enforcement network led by Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson, given more to do this time) – but is growing ever-more sceptical about its true motives. Rogers is forced to go on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D after finding himself in the middle of a massive conspiracy and, with the help of deadly assassin Natalia Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson, also with more to do this time), and fellow war veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie, underused) sets about uncovering the truth.

While Thor’s second solo outing got lost in an Asgardian vortex of Dark Elves and cod-Lord Of The Rings nonsense, Cap’s big return has a far more engaging narrative.

Cap (Chris Evans) must work with deadly assassin Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Cap (Chris Evans) must work with deadly assassin Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The central plot makes no bones about its nods to 1970s conspiracy cinema classics like The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days Of The Condor (1975), right down to the casting of Condor‘s Robert Redford, who effortlessly raises the level of the film every time he’s on screen as senior S.H.I.E.L.D figure Alexander Pierce.

The juxtaposition of Cap’s clearly defined outlook of right and wrong with the murky, compromised ideology of S.H.I.E.L.D is a nice idea and a very contemporary concept, but the film doesn’t trust the audience to work it out for themselves. When he witnesses just how far S.H.I.E.L.D is willing to go to “neutralise threats”, a rattled Rogers tells Fury “This isn’t freedom, this is fear”; to which Fury replies the agency “takes the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be”. The point is made several more times in case we haven’t picked it up.

Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) with old buddy and fellow S.H.I.E.L.D colleague Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) with old buddy and fellow S.H.I.E.L.D colleague Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

In spite of the lack of subtlety, it’s undoubtedly the most interesting element of both this and any other Marvel picture to date, and one you feel directors Anthony and Joe Russo would rather have concentrated on more. This being a superhero movie, however, it’s a prerequisite that things go boom sooner or later.

That being said, an early set piece involving an ambush on Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D mobile is exhilarating stuff, while a fight involving Rogers and a dozen or so S.H.I.E.L.D goons in a lift gets the pulse racing. It’s when the scale of the action is amped up that the film – especially in the final act – loses its way and turns into just another Marvel movie involving a stack of CGI explosions in the sky.

The mysterious Winter Soldier in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The mysterious Winter Soldier in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

In spite of being part of the title, we’re given only a brief taste of who and what the Winter Soldier is. It’s a plot thread you suspect had more meat on it during early drafts and is left dangling for Cap’s third solo movie. At 136 minutes, the film is too long anyway, so it’s not surprising this wasn’t developed more.

Although on paper a two-dimensional relic of 1940s flag-waving propaganda comics, Captain America’s onscreen adventures are fast becoming the Marvel movies to look out for.

Four Frames – The Natural (1984)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Barry Levinson’s hagiographic baseball epic The Natural.

Of all the films made about the sport of baseball, plenty have struck out, while only a handful have truly knocked it out of the park. None, however, can compare to The Natural.

It’s unsurprising that a sport so revered by its innumerous followers should provide the backdrop to a picture whose central character is seemingly touched by the divine.

The Natural

Determined to become “the best there ever was” in baseball, the rise to greatness of gifted 19-year-old farm boy Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford, aged 47 at the time of release) is brutally cut short by a maniacal femme fatale dressed head-to-toe in black (Barbara Hershey), who lures him to her hotel room before shooting him.

Sixteen years later, Roy joins the dead-end New York Knights as a “middle-aged rookie” and becomes an overnight sensation when he literally knocks the cover off the ball, a feat lent extra drama when a thunderstorm breaks out as the ball is struck.

The Natural

His belated ascent to baseball deity is threatened when he again allows himself to succumb to the wrong woman, this time in the form of the duplicitous and manipulative Memo (Kim Basinger). However, redemption presents itself when his childhood sweetheart Iris (Glenn Close) re-enters his life.

Director Barry Levinson’s sophomore picture incurred the wrath of many by jettisoning the downbeat ending of Bernard Malamud’s source novel in favour of a wholly triumphant final reel.

The Natural

It’s the crucial play-off game and a debilitated Roy steps up to the plate knowing the Knights’ whole season rests on his shoulders. Cometh the hour, cometh the man; he sends one final, glorious home run crashing into the stadium lights, exploding them in a shower of sparks that light up his lap of honour in front of an enraptured crowd – all played out in slow-motion as if time itself is in awe.

Shameless and implausible it may be, but for a genre that so repeatedly wallows in melodrama, it remains an iconic moment in sports cinema. All the ingredients are there; from Randy Newman’s superheroic score, to Caleb Deschanel’s breathtaking cinematography, which imbues each frame with a warm and nostalgic beauty.

The Natural

The film takes Arthurian legend (Roy’s Excalibur-esque bat Wonderboy, fashioned from a tree split in two by lightning) and Homer’s The Odyssey and fashions its own mythos out of the mix. It also lathers on the religious sub-text, most strikingly during a key moment when Iris, dressed all in white and stood in the stands watching Roy play, is bathed in an angelic glow courtesy of Deschanel’s astonishing use of lighting.

As hagiographic as it is towards Hobbs – and, in turn, Redford – The Natural perfectly captures the joy of witnessing the sort of greatness that comes along only once-in-a-lifetime.

Review – All Is Lost

More than anything, dialogue played a crucial role in transforming J.C. Chandor’s financial crisis drama Margin Call into a gripping and intelligent debut feature.

All Is Lost is cinema in its purest form, a visual poem of hope, despair, strength and weakness that will wash over you like a warm tide

All Is Lost is cinema in its purest form, a visual poem of hope, despair, strength and weakness that will wash over you like a warm tide

Conversely, in Chandor’s compelling and very moving follow-up, All Is Lost, it’s actions rather than words that drive the narrative forwards and give the film its raw, physical power.

What links both films are the sky-high stakes – livelihoods are on the line in Margin Call, while a man’s life hangs precariously in the balance in All Is Lost. Robert Redford plays the unnamed near-ancient mariner whose solo sailing journey turns into a desperate fight for survival when a stray shipping container rips a hole in the side of his boat.

The calm before the storm in All Is Lost

The calm before the storm in All Is Lost

A brutal storm turns a bad situation into something far worse and, still 1,700 miles from land and without any working means of communication, Redford’s mariner (described as “Our Man” in the closing credits) must rely on his resourcefulness and dwindling resolve if he has any hope of survival.

Redford’s casting is a masterstroke on Chandor’s part. An icon of cinema for five decades, Redford was the anti-establishment pin-up respected by the establishment, who has often been at his best playing mysterious loners.

The full scale of the problems for Robert Redford's unnamed protagonist emerge in All Is Lost

The full scale of the problems for Robert Redford’s unnamed protagonist emerge in All Is Lost

Far from resting on his laurels, All Is Lost is arguably the 77-year-old’s most daring and challenging role to date. Few actors are as intriguing to watch as Redford and, with little or no dialogue to get in the way, it frees him up to act with his gut.

It’s a brave and entirely naturalistic performance and takes the actor to places we’ve never seen him go before. Picture Redford and the Sundance Kid or Jay Gatsby will likely spring to mind – a fresh-faced icon of cinema. But here, that familiar shock of blonde hair is greying at the sides, while the physical disintegration he goes through over the course of the film is alarming. The film may take place over the course of eight days, but Redford appears to age several decades.

The storm hits hard in All Is Lost

The storm hits hard in All Is Lost

Although few words are spoken, sound plays an integral role in the film. We know the groaning, snapping sound that starts the movie spells big trouble for Our Man, while the terrible cacophony of the storm feels like a punishment for unexplained past deeds. Likewise, Alex Ebert’s elemental score drifts in and out of the film and never once tries to get in the way of the drama.

Things go from bad to worse for our nameless sailor in All Is Lost

Things go from bad to worse for our nameless sailor in All Is Lost

The title of the film derives from Redford’s opening voiceover (which accounts for almost all of the dialogue), wherein he seeks forgiveness from an unnamed person, presumably his wife and/or family (a wedding ring is pretty much the only back story we get for his character), before concluding that “all is lost”.

As to whether all is indeed lost come the ambiguous ending and the cut to white is clearly open to interpretation, but it’s worth playing over in your mind what Our Man has been forced to endure throughout his ordeal before making a final judgement.

All Is Lost is cinema in its purest form, a visual poem of hope, despair, strength and weakness that will wash over you like a warm tide.