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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The Candidate" is a film which has something in common with Sidney
Lumet's "Power" from the following decade. Both films look at the role
played by political consultants, what would today be called "spin
doctors", in the American electoral process, and both were made at a
time when there was a popular conservative Republican in the White
House, Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in the eighties. (Prior to the
Watergate scandal, Nixon was highly popular, as indicated by his
landslide win in that year's Presidential election). One difference
between the films is that in "Power" more attention is paid to the
personality of the spin doctor, whereas here it is the candidate
himself who is at the centre.
The film tells the story of a campaign for a Senate seat in California, currently held by another popular conservative Republican, Senator Crocker Jarmon. The Democratic candidate is Bill McKay, an idealistic, charismatic and politically liberal lawyer. Much of the film deals with the relationship between McKay and his spin doctor Marvin Lucas, who endeavours to persuade McKay to tone down his radical rhetoric, especially on controversial issues like abortion and school bussing, and to make himself a bland, centrist candidate, all things to all men.
The script was written by Jeremy Larner, who had been a speechwriter for the liberal Senator Eugene McCarthy during the 1968 Presidential election campaign, so was presumably made with a liberal agenda in mind. It seems, however, to have ended up as one of those films which were ostensibly made from a liberal standpoint but which are just as capable of being interpreted in a conservative, or at least a centrist, fashion. (Others that come to mind include "High Noon" and "Seven Days in May"). Larner may have intended an indictment of the way in which the US political system discourages genuinely radical debate of issues such as poverty and race relations. The storyline, however, in which McKay comes back from a seemingly hopeless position to win the race, could also be interpreted as a warning that the Democrats must abandon radicalism and seek out the centre ground if they are to win elections. (If that was indeed the film's message, it was sadly lost on George McGovern, their candidate for President that year). Of course, Larner had put himself in a difficult position; had he written an ending in which Jarmon won the election, some might have seen this as an endorsement of conservative Republicanism.
The film is made in a rather dry, semi-documentary style, concentrating more on political debate than on personal issues. There is a suggestion that McKay, a married man, may be having an affair with another woman, but this issue is given far less prominence that it would be in most political dramas. The personal relationship which is given most prominence is the rather difficult one between McKay and his more conservative father John, a former State Governor, who is initially reluctant to endorse his son's campaign. McKay is played by Robert Redford, one of Hollywood's most prominent liberals and a huge star in the seventies, but he cannot do much with the role; McKay comes across as little more than a handsome, charismatic mouthpiece for a set of ideas, some of which are not really even his own.
Peter Boyle as Lucas and Don Porter as Jarmon are rather better, but to my mind this is a film which never really comes to life. Some of the issues have a certain modern resonance; many of Jarmon's speeches, for example, would go down well with the current "Tea Party" movement. Overall, however, my impression was that, while "The Candidate" may have been controversial in 1972, today is just comes across as a dull debate about the politics of forty years ago. "Power" has its faults, but it has held up rather better as an examination of the role of the spin doctor. 5/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's interesting that "The Candidate" starts with a look at the
attitudes of the political handlers because they're apparently the
motive force in this film. They are (in the film) unscrupulous salesmen
who are selling political services. Poor Bill McKay is the cynical son
of an ex-politician who thinks he's seen it all but gets suckered and
That's the disappointing thing about cynicism- a lot of people knock it and try to eradicate it but, as this film suggests, frequently we're not cynical enough. Cynicism kills you while it protects you.
I'm not a politician but what little I know about it, unless McKay's handlers were hired by Crocker Jarmon, they get paid to WIN, not lose. If they WIN, they get hired by someone else, if they LOSE, they don't. So it's in Marvin Lucas' best interests to WIN. When he tells McKay it's alright to lose, he's lying.
Since Marcus came to McKay and not the other way around, (is THAT realistic?) then we have to view him as a sort of political guru-for-hire who spots potential, latent ambition/vanity/hubris (and ability to pay, presumably) and sells the idea of candidacy to the potential candidate.
Unless I missed something, that's not the way it works, but OK.
This is a film that works on the idea that even the most idealistic will be corrupted by the machine, remembering that "...the Abyss also looks into you".
It's been said that no one who WANTS power should be CONSIDERED for power. Too bad it doesn't work that way.
So here we have McKay, the standard "Thanks but no thanks" idealist who is corrupted and suckered despite himself, despite his cynicism. From being his own man, if that's ever possible, we see him start being handled by his new buddies and by his suddenly ambitious wife.
I loved the scene when she says "Ooh, they cut your hair" like it was their idea (which it was) and they were the decision-making parents (which they were). It obviously pisses McKay off because she's so comfortable acknowledging that the handlers are making his decisions for him. She asks him to turn his head so she can see it but he doesn't do it, like an angry child. He's looking at her as if she's trying to decide which roses will look best in the White House garden. As he's struggling with his own latent ambition, he's also observing hers. He's lost control and, struggling to get away from his father's influence, he and his wife are now under the influences of both his advisers and their own life ambitions.
Because really, how long CAN McKay remain an idealistic storefront lawyer? "Growth" is inevitable. The alternatives are stagnation and decay.
Interestingly, besides creating a health clinic or planting some trees, his "before candidacy" character doesn't have solutions for the BIG problems any more than anyone else does. Idealism, yes, solutions no.
And that's the message that Melvyn Douglas gives us. "It doesn't matter". Politics aren't here to save the world, they're an element of it's destruction. We can slow the process down, (MAYBE) but we can't stop it. Like the aging process, you can stay in shape and eat well but you can't make yourself younger. The processes of the world (technology, power, suburban sprawl, etc.) have agendas of their own and we can push them forward but we can't hold them back.
While you're saving the trees, they're killing the whales and when you turn to the whales, they're cutting the trees. When you're saving THIS forest, they're chopping down that one and raising the taxes, starting wars, creating pollution, writing new laws, limiting your rights and hitting you over the head with guns, red tape, inoculations and misinformation. All in "your best interests". Progress will eventually kill us.
So, "The Candidate" isn't about political solutions, it's about the seduction of Power. As McKay looks into Power, Power looks into him. Will he turn into his father, despite himself?
Redford is great in this film, bringing a lot of comedy to a role that greatly needed it. I've always loved that scene where he can't keep from laughing (due to exhaustion) while trying to express his "Point Of View". In his best films, he doesn't forget the comedy.
This is the first time I've seen the film when I'm old enough (97) to realize that he does take a private timeout with that beguiling girl with the glasses.
"The Candidate" is a great film but it isn't prescient. It's a statement of the eternal political process, more or less the way it's always been. "Spin" existed before the term was coined, they just called it something else, like "lying".
In case you care, my favorite parts of "SpyGame" were the parts in the present where Muir was outfoxing the foxes. When RR wants to be, he's one of the best actors around. Funny and smart.
OK and while I'm at it, one of his best-delivered lines ever was in "3 Days Of The Condor":
"It's a great face...but it's never been to China."
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I recently watched "Downhill Racer", an earlier collaboration between
director Ritchie and star Redford and didn't much enjoy it, largely due
to a basic disinterest in the lives of Alpine skiers and Redford's
rather unsavoury lead character. This scathing and realistic depiction
of the US political scene however was much more rewarding allowing both
Ritchie and Redford to shine in an excellent drama, making use of a
fly-on-the-wall, almost documentary technique to paint a convincing
warts-and-all picture of the machinery which it seems is necessary for
the candidature of an aspiring US senator.
Being from Britain, of course some of the background and terminology used was slightly foreign, but the film holds up really well on a universal basis, particularly in its portrayal of what we'd now term behind the scenes "spin-doctors" and the fronting of a political machine by a young good-looking idealistic conviction-politician against an old-style right-wing ultra-conservative rival - the parallels between the Blair/Major UK election of 1997 and obviously 2008 Obama/McCain US election, while not exact, are certainly palpable.
I personally rate this as Redford's best ever acting display - he seems an absolute natural as the initially energetic, moral, campaigning, but no-hope candidate, who learns the hard way about compromise, political correctness and above all how the arcane machinery of politics USA actually works. Thus we see him "on the stump" in amusing vox-pops with eccentric or bemused members of the public, cleaning up his physical appearance and generalising his ideals for the sake of bland, voter-friendly rhetoric and even falling victim to the temptations of the flesh to an obsessive female follower, this last point, concisely and effectively made without over-dramatisation (c.f. Gary Hart and of course Pres. Clinton himself) - for sure Redford's McKay character did have sexual relations with this woman, but lives to tell the tale.
Tension is built up as election day looms, and we see McKay starting to break down under the pressure as he resorts to gibberish en-route to a TV studio but by then his on-side advertising campaign, highlighting his good-looks, youthful vigour but playing down his more controversial left-of-centre views, propels him to an unlikely win against his incumbent opponent and by the surprise ending just at the point of victory, the director I think is telling us that the movie is less about the contest than the process itself. A similar ending device was used at the end of "Downhill Racer" but it works far better this time as you genuinely are intrigued by Redford's multi-dimensional character and wonder just what kind of senator he would have made. The absence of a sequel was definitely a missed opportunity here.
A quick word about the ensemble acting - it's uniformly good and verite is reinforced with the appearances of a number of real-life personalities ranging all the way from pre CNN-era TV commentators to Natalie Wood at a fund-raiser, although quite what an uncredited Groucho Marx is doing haranguing Redford in a toilet is anyone's guess.
In closing then a brave, uncompromising, multi-layered and above all entertaining insight into contemporary US politics of the early 70's. Note to self - must re-watch "All The President's Men" sometime soon...
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.
One of the best movies about politics EVER.
One of the really cool things about this movie is the list of cameo appearances. Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, John Tunney, Gene Washington, Cedric Hardman, Van Amburg, and other notables from California Democratic politics circa 1972 are all in here.
George McGovern reputedly hated this movie. Remember that he was the Democratic nominee for president in 1972. When asked about "The Candidate", he said "I didn't like it, I thought it reflects the darkest side of American politics".
Redford is amazing in this film, as an idealistic young lawyer torn between principle and ambition. Definitely one of the greatest actors of our time.
I finally got to see this movie and I found it very charming.
Redford plays a semi-serious lawyer Bill McKay whose father was once a governor for California. Now some want him to follow his father's footsteps and become a candidate for senator, but he has a tough rival and his attitude towards it all seems as if he doesn't want to do it, but does it anyway.
Redford is just great in this movie... and very cute! The ending is left just right fora sequel, which I wonder why they haven't made yet.
Political operative Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) is looking for a
Democratic candidate to oppose popular Republican U.S. Senator Crocker
Jarmon in California. He convinces idealistic do-gooder lawyer Bill
McKay (Robert Redford) to enter the race in an unwinable race. He
offers him an opportunity to say whatever he wants. McKay is the son of
former governor John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas) and becomes the nominee.
His campaign is being crushed by the Jarmon machine and he tries to
water down his message. He struggles between the same politics as usual
and his convictions as the race tightens.
The Watergate break-in happened and nobody cared. The public still has some blind naivety about the world of politics at the time. This movie skewers it with a bit of humor and lots of insight. The shooting style is slightly documentary style. Redford and Boyle are terrific. The writing digs deep and wins the Oscar. It's a great movie about the real political world.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The principal speech writer for Senator Eugene McCarthy during McCarthy's unsuccessful bid to win the Democratic Party's nomination for President in the spring of 1968, Jeremy Larner was uniquely qualified to write the screenplay for 'The Candidate'. A political operative with access to the inner workings of a major campaign, Larner was also an idealist who had become deeply disillusioned by the discrediting and abandonment of FDR-style liberalism in the late Sixtiesdone to death by LBJ's prosecution of the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon's opportunistic stress on "law and order" (a thinly disguised code term for white, middle-class reaction). Toward the end of Nixon's first term Larner penned 'The Candidate' as a protest and a warning that American politics was being stripped of any last vestiges of honor and ideological integrity for the sake of winning at all costs. Accordingly, 'The Candidate' follows the fortunes of Bill McKay (Robert Redford), a young, handsome civil rights lawyer and the son of former governor John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas), who is recruited by Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle), a shrewd political hack, to run against the seemingly unbeatable Republican incumbent, U.S. Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter). Convinced that he cannot win, McKay initially uses his candidacy as a forum to air liberal issues close to his heart: poverty, racism, ecological degradation, gun control, abortion rights, etc. Once it dawns on McKay that he will likely be on the wrong side of a humiliating landslide, he takes his campaign seriously and increasingly relies on Lucas to recast his image and dilute his liberalism so that he will appear more palatable to a conservative electorate. As he closes in on Jarmon in the polls, the latter requests a televised debate, during which McKay sticks to the prescribed platitudesuntil the very end, when he blurts out his frustration with the contrived, irrelevant nature of the proceedings. His candor infuriates his handlers but makes his father proud of him. Indeed, the venerable John J. McKay makes a public show of support (that had been heretofore withheld at his son's request). In the end, Bill McKay wins his race against Senator Jarmon but has sacrificed his core ideals in the process: a result that Jeremy Larner finds universal and inevitable in the overwhelmingly corrupt money and media-saturated climate of contemporary American politics. Larner's superb, prescient, and still highly relevant script garnered the 1973 the Writer's Guild of America (WGA) Award for Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen and the 1973 Oscar for Best Writing. The film also features cameos by a host of real politicians and journalists. Not everyone was impressed with 'The Candidate', however. Three weeks after the film premiered, New York congresswoman Bella Abzug (1920-1998) published a piece in the 'New York Times' that excoriated the movie for largely omitting the complicated, exhausting fund-raising process that is a huge part of every political campaign. She also found fault with its male-centered perspective and pervasive cynicism. VHS (1996) and DVD (1997).
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The Candidate" was the second film in which I saw Robert Redford; the
first was "Jeremiah Johnson". Both were released in 1972. And I knew
from the moment I saw this film that Redford was something special.
40 years, and at the base level, it's clear that politics hasn't changed too much. Yes, there's a lot of big money involved now, but the basics of candidate and voter is about the same...except less vitriol.
There's not exactly a plot here. It's more a story of a political pro attempting to make a modern "do-gooder" into his candidate. Redford plays an idealistic community organizer who doesn't really want to be senator, but goes along with it and then gets wrapped up in it. Not a plot, but a story about relationships and the evolution of a candidacy.
It's interesting to see some old familiar faces -- Natalie Wood, Howard K. Smith, and others.
Redford is superb. But then again, he almost always was. This was probably one of Peter Boyle's best roles, and Allen Garfield was impressive, as well. Melvyn Douglas was a pleasure to see in his role as the candidate's father. And Don Porter showed his versatility in playing the old favorite Republican candidate.
It's hard to find a negative in this film. It's worth watching and perhaps having on your DVD shelf.
THE CANDIDATE is a fascinating piece of work. Viewed this week with
MEDIUM COOL -- Which one poses the greater criticism of television?
MEDIUM COOL soaks in faked realism, THE CANDIDATE does the same. But
they are such different pictures. In the end, CANDIDATE ultimately
forms a more electric and buzzing indictment of Communication Age
politics and it does so at a predictably steep price.
CANDIDATE revels in a backstage, "candid" approach to political procedure. It harnesses a very active camera - moving, zooming, panning. Evidenced immediately in the credit soundtrack, this isn't meant to be a deft evaluation of Americana, it's a mockery. McKay has his sleeves pulled up, he's eating, he's unbuttoned, he's untucked, he's incorruptible. And the picture is presented as such a slick piece of entertainment that it's just about impossible to disagree. Here's the really interesting part. Whether or not CANDIDATE was aiming for it -- was it? -- it shows television as the most formidable political gamechanger in history. So many of the lines tailor to it -- "they" cut your hair. So many scenes are Television Training Camp. There's the self-satisfied shot where the camera pans into the viewfinder of the TV camera while McKay compromises on his crime policy. In essence, CANDIDATE demonstrates a radically different and devolved political landscape than earlier pieces. Is McKay a Jefferson Smith of the 70's? I think he is -- thanks to the script.
This celebrated script. It stacks Politicians against Non-Politicians and has Redford migrate from the former to the latter. And how it abuses Redford! Possibly the best thing about the film is Redford's amicability and his tangible love for filmmaking. Three years after Sundance, he is ready to be cool for the adults. But what about this script they hand him? The liberalism is so piquant that it smells like we would be better off without government. Like politics is somehow more corrupt or convoluted than anything else in the age of television. The one thing it gets right -- accidentally or not? -- is how the equation of celebrity and politics equals power. Towards the end, the script wallows so much in its own sagacity that it is enough to make me seasick. My biggest question is this -- is the ambitious and potent critique of television incidental or not? And another, how connected are Bill and Barack?
Jefferson. Bill. Barack. America evolves, doesn't it?
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