The Candidate (1972, Michael Ritchie)
The thesis of this hardened, Altmanesque political satire (that’s satire in the classic sense; this isn’t a comedy, and you won’t laugh) is nothing really special: that an idealist cannot attain public office without compromise. From All the King’s Men on down, we’d seen it before and we’ve seen it since, including in real life. The film is to be commended for its brave, pessimistic, subtle conclusion, but it’s hard to be really caught up in its drama when its cynicism now feels so familiar as to be old hat.
Just four years before The Candidate, its screenwriter Jeremy Larner was a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy, traveling with him around the country during the heady, chaotic, violent 1968 Democratic presidential primary. These experiences are filtered unmistakably into the plot, situations and dialogue of the film, just as director Michael Ritchie gains mileage from shooting and releasing the film in the midst of another presidential election, blocking and filming it as though it were the capturing of a real campaign. The story concerns the use of an idealistic young lawyer (Robert Redford as Bill McKay) as a patsy to oppose a popular GOP senator — McKay undertakes the process with the understanding that there’s no possible way he can win, that his primary benefit will be to take his message of fighting for the underprivileged into the public sphere. Alas, as the trail grows longer, in order to appear even remotely viable as a candidate McKay must gradually dilute his message until it becomes utterly generic — and then he suddenly finds himself with a very good chance of winning the Senate seat.
On top of the film’s mere adequacy as a work of irony and political food-for-thought, the two central roles are miscast. Redford can be a fine actor in the right part, but he also often wobbles into a kind of blank faced blandness, and that’s the chief reason he’s hard to buy here as either a keen, friend-of-the-people lawyer or a charismatic career politician. Don Porter hardly fares better as his out of touch Republican opponent Crocker Jarmon, a part he approaches as though he’s auditioning for Laugh-In. (Even Melvyn Douglas, as McKay’s endlessly skeptical father — a former politician himself — gets sort of lost in the chaos.) Nevertheless a young, fiery Peter Boyle steals the film as the campaign manager to McKay, the giver of the promise that is so spectacularly broken as the story progresses. Boyle is almost eerily dedicated to his role; he crafts his character so vividly that he seems to belong in a different movie, one that would be quite intriguing to see.
Where The Candidate succeeds most richly is in its realistic, almost documentarylike glimpses of the process of a national campaign, something it pulls off believably thanks to Larner’s knowing, perceptive contributions and director Ritchie’s determination to shoot the film as though he was behind the scenes of an actual election season, an illusion he pulls off masterfully in casual side glimpses of mundane details like the creation of campaign ads and the routine schmoozing of photo-ops. What this gets across more than anything is how much less the tenor of U.S. politics has changed in the last forty years than we’d like to convince ourselves (or would we?). This would in fact make an intriguing double feature with D.A. Pennebaker’s nonfiction film The War Room, about Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign (particularly with Boyle’s character an excellent parallel to James Carville). Like that film, The Candidate is ultimately very interesting intellectually and historically valuable, but its insights are a bit less trenchant and vital than one might expect.
It’s also uncomfortable for those of us who like to believe that something beyond the routine and shallow can occasionally shine through in American politics. You’re surely aware of how the last six years have played out for us dummies — and the film sadly nails it: the more powerful McKay becomes, the more invisible and malleable he is as an individual. And the less his ideas, his capacity if not his thirst for action, actually have any depth or potential. Humanity and belief are subsumed, as so often. This film predated Watergate, so that its harshness rings so true is as much as indictment of America now as whatever it felt like in 1972. And yet there’s a certain tidy easiness to this cynicism, frankly. Is there anything in the end really productive about just spending a couple of hours reminding us that politics is bullshit (maaaan)? I don’t think surrendering to the inevitable is a good way to live. Remember Ace in the Hole? Billy Wilder was just as brutal, in an even bleaker angrier time, but he taught us a lot more.