The Candidate (1972) Poster


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Best political film ever made
William J. Fickling24 October 2004
I saw this film in 1972 when it came out, and I just saw it again on cable. I am amazed at how prescient this film was. Remember, this was before Jerry Brown, the real life politician most people will think of as a counterpart to Redford's character, had not yet run for governor and was still unknown outside of California. Nixon was still in office and was about to be re-elected by a landslide. Abortion was still illegal in all 50 states, and Roe v. Wade had not yet been decided. The term "sound bite" had not yet been coined. "Spin" was something a washing machine did.

Redford plays an idealistic young storefront lawyer who is persuaded to run for the Senate as a Democrat against a Republican incumbent running for his fourth term. He feels free to speak his mind because he knows he hasn't a chance of winning. His freshness and honesty win over a lot of people favorable to his politics, and suddenly the gap closes. Now he has a chance of winning, but to do so he has to win over the "undecided voters" in the middle of the political spectrum. (Sound familiar? I'm writing this nine days before the Bush-Kerry election, and no one knows who will win.) Guess what happens? Suddenly he's not so fresh and honest anymore. And by the time he finally has a televised debate with the incumbent, he has mastered the art of the non-answer answer, that is, responding to a reporter's question by making a vague statement of his own without ever answering the question.

Fast forward to 2004. The spin doctors now run the show. This film was intended as satire and as a warning. Regrettably, it has become a prediction. 10/10
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Thought-provoking look at politics and media.
MiriamEB6 September 2000
The Candidate, 1972, was a film that really made me think. It takes you through Bill McKay's campaign for California senator - and shows how an idealistic and inexperienced young man gets trapped by the media system. Most plot summaries will tell you that it is about how he gives the political system a kick - but I found that it was really more about how he became lost in it. It seemed that it was more of an 'outside' movie than an 'inside' one - there is always some mystery about what is going on inside everyone's heads. Robert Redford is really very good here as McKay - watch for a speech he makes to himself in the car. Peter Boyle also gave a thought-provoking performance, as Bill McKay's smooth-talking campaign manager. A sad commentary on the way things work. Very relevant. I recommend it for fans of Robert Redford or anybody interested in politics or media. 7 out of 10.
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Not bad
Robert J. Maxwell15 April 2004
Michael Ritchie seems to have this thing for competition -- whether downhill racing, body building, water skiing, or, as here, politics. This isn't my favorite human motive, besting other people, so this one comes as a rather pleasant surprise, laden as it is with more social and political content than the with the details of the quest. I mean -- Redford doesn't even want the office!

"The Candidate" has the appearance of a made-for-TV movie. The credits are presented simply, as in a TV movies. There is no underscore but the music that we hear consists of marches with lots of drums and sometimes one or two instruments hitting clinkers, as they would on a bandstand behind a speaker.

The photography is highly colored and flat, as in a TV movie. Everybody seems to be dressed in suits or riding costumes. They look overly made up, freshly preened and pruned. They drive big new American cars and live in splendidly arid modern homes. In short they appear to lead the kind of lives to which naive screenwriters aspire.

That out of the way, this is a pretty brave movie. It's a story of an innocent and blunt lawyer who become progressively corrupted during the campaign as victory seems more nearly in his grasp and the grasp of his managers. They 86 his sideburns and give him a haircut and put him in expensive suits. Girls love him because he displays such, well, such Robert Redfordness. One guy belts him in the mouth at a rally and I can understand why. All men as handsome as Robert Redford should be illegal.

But he does a decent job in his minimal way. His forte lies in little moves, as when he cocks his head and says quizzically, "Eh"? Everybody else is quite good too, though his wife is mostly decorative. Peter Boyle is fine, and Allan Garfinkle is always believable as a cynical scuzz.

You have to admire the way the script does not spare Redford's character. He may be an idealist at first. What does he think of abortion? "I'm for it." How about property taxes. "I don't know." By the end of the movie he's learned fluent politicospeak. How's he feel about busing? "You can't solve the problems of this country with a bus." (Right.) He knows that he's selling himself out but he wants to WIN.

As the campaign gets into high gear he's late for a meeting with a labor leader, a grizzled Kenneth Toby given to smoking pinched little cigarettes. Everybody in the room is wondering where Redford is, and how he can treat an important man like Toby with such disrespect. And where is he? We see the door to a hotel room open and there emerges a girl so gorgeous that if she were an escort instead of a groupie she'd be extremely expensive. A few seconds later Redford comes out buttoning his jacket.

Nothing much is made of this incident. Boyle watches this parade in the hallway, staring after the girl, but nobody says anything and the scene lasts for only a few seconds. And here is where Ritchie and the writers earn my respect. Think of how easily this very effective scene could have been demolished. Boyle stopping the groupie and demanding to know what's been going on. Boyle admonishing Redford for cheating on his wife -- "If this ever gets out our goose is cooked!" Redford protesting that his private life is his own business.

But none of this happens. Not in this scene or in any of the others in which a piece of character is revealed. Ritchie trusts in the perspicacity of the viewer. He shows us, because he doesn't have to tell us. He figures we're smart enough to pick up this clues by ourselves. Thank you, Mister Ritchie.

We should be grateful to the writer as well, and to Redford's improvisational talents, when, alone in a car's rear seat, half crazed, he mangles the stump speech he's given a thousand times and comes up with a hilarious parody: "The basic indifference that made this country great."

Also admirable is that the movie deals with specific issues -- abortion, busing, unemployment, fire hazard, health concerns -- and Redford is the Democratic candidate while Don Porter is the Republican candidate (imagine actually NAMING the political parties and risking losing half the audience).

Porter comes across like an actor, an old ham of an actor, which suits the part. He's smooth and wily at seducing the public, a kind of Don Juan of the political arena. Ritchie has taken some real chances here. Porter comes up with something like, "Oh, sure, when I was a kid we were all poor too. Why some of us didn't even have our own SOCIAL WORKER."

It took guts to make this movie. And talent to make it so well.
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The Candidate
Malcs22 March 2000
Robert Redford, in one of his unjustly overlooked films from 1972, stars as a lawyer and the son of the former governor of the state of California in an election year where the senatorial incumbent has no competition. Peter Boyle convinces Redford to run, fully expecting and anticipating to lose, therefore being able to run on a platform of pure integrity to show how out of touch the current senator has become. But suddenly the public realizes that some fresh, younger blood with an idealistic eye might be what they truly want rather than another in a long succession of terms by the same old huckster. Melvyn Douglas also stars as Redford's father. Even though this film is almost 30 years old, the Oscar-winning screenplay by Jeremy Larner shows just how timeless the same old issues the candidate has to decide where he stands upon (abortion, the environment, health care) actually are. The script really is eye-opening, because it underlines very well the point that even if, say, Jesus Christ were to run for office today, what He would say is not as important as how and when He'd say it. Directed by Michael Ritchie (Smile, The Bad News Bears, Semi-Tough), one of the few American directors who has been able to successfully show the black humor of the strange, fetid underbelly of competition in this society. Blink and you'll miss Natalie Wood at a fund-raiser. Completely climatized to the Seventies, she looks like Donovan's aide-de-camp.
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Like they say, it's all about politics.
Lee Eisenberg5 December 2005
Robert Redford plays idealistic senate candidate Bill McKay. He's mainly running to bring certain political issues into the open, although he never actually plans to win. But as time goes by, he realizes that whether or not he wins, he might not be able to hold on to his values.

"The Candidate" is one of the many great movies about the world of politics. It holds up as well today as it did in 1972 (maybe even better). Redford gives a solid performance, as does Peter Boyle as campaign manager Marvin Lucas. One of the most insightful scenes is the debate between McKay and his opponent about the issues. A great movie in every way. Look for appearances by Natalie Wood, Groucho Marx, and Howard K. Smith.
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The timeless definitive campaign
jlacerra24 June 2001
This is a truly excellent and overlooked Redford vehicle, and his performance comes full circle. From wide-eyed idealism to resigned cynicism, all the way back to little-boy-lost and overwhelmed. Redford is flawless! Peter Boyle is right-on as the experienced campaign hand. Also it is easy to overlook Don Porter's effortless portrayal of the smooth and experienced incumbent senator, just on the verge of decline. Porter's seamless delivery makes it look easy.

Douglas is also excellent as John J. McKay, Redford's father and the former governor. Obviously a traditional machine politician, and apparently estranged from his activist son for that, and perhaps for other reasons we are left to imagine, Douglas revels in the younger man's initiation to the corrupt world of politics. Catch the hunting scene to illustrate how these two are poles apart.

An intelligent, realistic, and rewarding film about politics, done at a time when folks were perhaps looking for a political fairy tale.
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Well done, still resonates today
oshram-38 April 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Redford plays Bill McKay, a crusading lawyer who happens to be the son of a former governor of California, a fact he plays down. When incumbent Republican Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) is running for his umpteenth term in the senate, kingmaker Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) decides to tap Bill as a wild, dark horse candidate. While young McKay is initially suspicious and unwilling, Lucas tells him he can do whatever he likes and say whatever he likes on the campaign trail because no one expects him to win. With that freedom in mind, McKay sets off to run a very different style of campaign.

The acting here is all top notch. Redford, a natural for the cameras, manages to make McKay fairly awkward and uncomfortable in the early going, but as he warms to being what a candidate is all about, he takes to the campaign trail amazingly well. Boyle is also excellent as the kind of old bastard it always takes to win one of these races, the political insider every race needs to smooth over the opposition within the party and crucify those without. Porter is also good as Jarmon, showing a stiff, wooden, conservative incumbent who must have seemed hopelessly out of date in 1972 -- especially considering his dashing, youthful opposition -- but who also sounds oddly like any politician in office today, with his talk of loving America and supporting business.

The movie makes a very keen point about what people have to do to get elected, and we see a slow whittling of McKay's priorities as he must sacrifice his principles one by one in order to get elected. By the end of the campaign, the fresh-faced, honest young man we were introduced to at the start is gone, replaced by a slick image who is all things to all people. To be fair McKay fights this process, but the movie makes a strong point that, simply, this is what is required in order to win. The end note -- McKay asking Lucas "What do we do now?" is both telling and chilling, that even thirty years ago, there was such distrust and distaste for politics and what it did to people (and this was a year *before* Watergate). The Candidate still plays well despite some dated material, and the lessons it offers about politics and what it does to people still apply today. This is a film well worth your time investigating.
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Bill McKay: The Better Way!
tieman6418 February 2010
Warning: Spoilers
"If nothing counts, then everything does." – Michael Connelly

Some points...

1. "The Candidate" stars Robert Redford as Bill McKay, a young lawyer who is manipulated into running against the Democratic candidate of California by political election specialist, Marvin Lucas

2. The film highlights how front-running politicians are often groomed by a team of "handlers" and "election specialists". The end result is less a person and more some cookie-cutter "one man for all people" fantasy image. (historically, "young/vibrant presidents" often follow "old/seemingly wise presidents", the public always bouncing from one extreme to the next, forever dissatisfied)

3. The film charts how disillusioned those within the political sphere often become. McKay goes from an idealistic lawyer who fights in the public's interest, to a man who spouts banal slogans and vapid sound bites.

4. How to win an election: have no clear political message. Stick to vague promises and appealing catchphrases. Promise change but specify nothing.

5. The film highlights how in-bred "democratic politics" has become. Everyone's father is in the business, everyone's calling in favours, scratching backs and providing a helping hand.

6. Studies show that, not only do a disproportionate number of sons follow their fathers into politics, but that those sons who lost or were separated from their fathers at an early age, or view their "politician fathers" as failures, often climb higher into power then their parents. There's some seriously warped psychological issues going on there.

7. Those drawn to politics are often those worse suited to the job. Those idealistic few who join for noble purposes, are soon crushed by the system.

8. Politicians: automatons, cult like drones who adopt the speech patterns of those they admire and surround themselves with. Democracy: forever dependent on voter gullibility.

9. After McKay wins the election at the end of the film, he turns to his handlers and says, "What do we do now?" What indeed. If the process of winning an election is so difficult, so time consuming, one imagines that staying in power will become a similarly all consuming and obsessive task. The politician cares not about bettering society, but about doing what is necessary to stay in power.

10. Most social changes, benefits, progress etc, occur despite politicians/politics, not because of it.

11. Politics in the television age: image driven, a circus act, empty spectacle, pure entertainment, voters asked to choose a leader like they choose a detergent brand.

12. McKay's political colours (yellow, green) deliberately revoke the reds, whites and blues of Americana. Only at the end, when he wins and is fully corrupted, does he succumb, his car now draped in reds, whites and blues.

13. Films like this were common in the 70s, many evoking the paranoia of the time period: "The Parallax View", "Three Days of the Condor", "Z", "All The President's Men", "The Manchurian Candidate" etc.

14. French sociologist Jacques Ellul argued in his book, "Propaganda", that it matters little what propagandists stand for or what their ends are (Liberal, Conservative, Republican, Democrat etc), because they are all taking part in an exercise that is fundamentally dehumanizing and anti-democratic. McKay may be a handsome, sympathetic icon of liberalism and virtue, but ultimately this isn't important. McKay and what he stands for will inevitably be overcome by the political machine he inhabits. He's no different from his opponent.

15. Ellul discussed this idea further in "The Technological Society". Here he argues that we are now so obsessed with technology and efficiency — with that one very best way to achieve a predetermined goal — that we have lost sight of our actions and, in a fundamental way, of what it means to be human. This idea is apparent throughout the film, the political campaign run by a hive of specialised robot consultants and a candidate who misplaces some of his humanness once he becomes obsessed with getting his "numbers" to move in the right direction. Poll numbers, soft-money loopholes, attack ads, phone ratings...this is politics meets Game Theory.

16: The religion of the future: the cult of control, of number worship, of data mining, of information gathering. Theory: security equals more data. Reality: Chaos.

8/10 – Excellent. The problem with these films, though, is that we as a modern audience are so aware of the problems, are so cynical towards politics anyway, that these films all amount to wasted preaching. Perhaps the realisation is that it is arrogant to assume that one man, one bill passed by congress, has the effect to instigate meaningful change, especially now that we live in a world where the big social changes seem to occur irrationally, often by accident (a world where a woman like Rosa Parks sitting in the back of a bus ends racial segregation?). One is then forced to make an almost Sartrean leap. If nothing counts, then why enter politics? Which leads to, if nothing counts, then everything does.

Worth one viewing.
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Film for all would be candidates to view
Captain Ken26 March 2002
Anyone thinking of running for public office should view this film. It is primer on how to win a race. Roman Pucinski when he ran for the U.S. Senate in Illinois in 1972 required his staff to view this film. Redford was the candidate we all hope would serve our state. This film should be shown before every election.It has a timeless message
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Timeless political comedy with bite.
jckruize25 October 2002
Unobtrusive, documentary-style direction by the underrated Michael Ritchie lends verisimilitude to Jeremy Larner's witty (Oscar-winning) script. It feels like you're really on the campaign trail with a "pretty-boy" senatorial candidate (played with typically effortless charm by Robert Redford), who can barely keep up with a platform being built on the fly and the relentless media blitz that dogs him every step. Events move swiftly to their inevitable, ironic conclusion, highlighted by one of the best closing lines in cinema history.

Terrific support is provided by character actors Peter Boyle, Allen Garfield, Melvyn Douglas and others, plus a host of cameos by real politicians of the era such as Alan Cranston and Hubert Humphrey. If you want an idea how modern American politics works, this is still a pretty good primer.
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