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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."
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
"The Candidate" is very insightful, very conscientious, and very accurate in exploring the trials, tribulations, and developments in transforming a nihilistic underdog into a popular, contending candidate for the California Senate. It is a good, provocative, and even satiric look at the ups and downs of the political landscape, as well as its many constraints, with political advisers not interested in the candidate's candidness, but rather sealing an election, and this is very fascinatingly and simply laid out in a film that goes "the full monty" in exploring the American political landscape- this is generally a behind-the-scenes development of the political process- from the frequent campaign rallies, to the luncheons and parades, to the advantage of incumbency, to dirty campaign tricks, to critical debates, and finally, to the anxiety, tension, and exasperation of the election. Robert Redford is the character study, playing an aspiring, yet hardly hopeful, son of a former California governor, dashing and articulate candidate for California Senate, Bill McKay, for the Democratic party. His challenger is incumbent Senator Crocker Jarmon, who seems to be the antithesis of all of the charisma, articulation, and humbleness that is McKay, a rather arrogant, prudent, and unappealing candidate, regardless of whether you share his beliefs. I have to wonder- is the film taking jabs at the Republican party- claiming it is apathetic, self-serving, and shadowy, while in contrast the Democratic party cares passionately about the people, contains darling appeal, and considers a "better way" for the people rather than simply winning an election. Perhaps I am finding ways to detract from some clear and distinguished differences between McKay and Jarmon, because of their parties in the film, and perhaps this is because I believe BOTH parties stand for the people, regardless of my political allegiances- whatever; just a curious observation. Robert Redford plays McKay very well and earnestly- really bringing this vivacious and whimsical character to life and shining on the "campaign trail". The screenplay is absolutely brilliant- taking every idea about politics and ingeniously infusing it throughout the many events of the film: a very constructive and admirable endeavor indeed. The music is very patriotic, sentimental, and portentous, really defining the American political spirit, and really pounding on a theme of greatness through victory. This is an extremely well crafted, well scripted, well acted, well directed, and well received, albeit very predictable and incisive, film, exploring the political landscape as verily as I have ever seen a film endeavor in. It's simple, entertaining, and contains some solid education about the shaping of a political candidate, through a hostile, volatile, and demanding political campaign- "The Candidate" is a real winner. ***1/2 out of ****
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For the non-experts, "pezzonovante" is a direct reference to the
Sicilian word used in "The Godfather" to describe a senator, governor,
or any upstarts or ambitious newcomer on the political field
(basically, what Vito Corleone wanted for his son, Michael)
I chose this title because in 1973, the two Oscars for Best Screenplay went to "The Godfather" and "The Candidate". Although they play in different leagues, both screenplays bear interesting similarities through the implicit statements they make about the limits of the American Dream and the ideals that supposedly forged it. Indeed, no matter how charismatic they are, there's something rotten in a country that allows such figures as Michael Corleone and Bill McKay to succeed.
My judgment might be severe but it's a credit to Robert Redford's extraordinary performance. Sometimes, we're put in the electors' shoes and see him like a handsome and idealistic patriot, eager to raise the voice of American social outcasts and sometimes we remember, as parts of the sideshow, that these are the very reasons he was picked by his friend, Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) to represent the Democrat party despite his blatant lack of experience.
And what's the catch for McKay? The film reveals its cynical and interesting premise when Boyle writes in a matchbox his only guarantee: "you will lose". The point of his candidature is not to undermine a Democrat potential leader's career and yet provide a realistic opponent to the Republican, the much popular Crocker Jarmon. The certitude of the defeat is compensated by a symbolical victory: McKay has all freedom to spread his values, share his vision and gain some publicity. Seems like a win-win situation.
McKay accepts, not without reluctance and more driven by the surrounding enthusiasm, starting with his wife who enjoys her new 'first lady' etiquette. But there's something we know about the American political machine, once you put your foot in, there's no way getting back. And the irony with McKay is that his political carelessness and lack of true ambitious will catch the eyes and ears of Democrats, by inspiring a more genuine and less generic form of political expression, precisely what the public needed. "The Candidate" brilliantly points out the effect of good merchandising in politics. Like a product, McKay has the looks, the message and also, the brand.
The name is in fact the film's subplot, involving McKay's father, a not-so popular veteran politician played by Melvyn Douglas. The reporters notice that the father never endorses his son's candidature, but McKay pretends it's a way to assess his independence. However, after a severe drop in polls that would have foreshadowed a total humiliation, McKay wins a debate against Jarmon at the last minute thanks to a genuine reaction rejecting the hypocritical aspect of a confrontation that dodged the real issues. Jarmon is upset, McKay wins, then McKay Sr. blesses him with the greatest compliment he could ever give him "son, you're a politician".
Jeremy Larner, who was a speech writer for the Democrat Eugene McCarthy and then can be trusted in terms of accuracy, wrote the script. It isn't just a fictionalization of a true story but a gutsy political pamphlet that hasn't lost its relevance. And if we don't remember McCarthy, we do remember the former President who hadn't done much for the country, yet compensated his lack of accomplishment thanks to his father's aura, and used Christian idiosyncrasies to please the crowds. Bush Jr. was no less a puppet than McKay, but he won, and the pages he wrote might not be regarded as the greatest chapter of American history.
And since he was elected, I guess "The Candidate" failed as a warning, and this is why I blame the film for not having been more 'thought-provoking' and 'entertaining'. The script was great, the performance of Redford as a man torn between his sincere ideals and his conviction that he's a fraud get thrillingly palpable as the film progresses. Peter Boyle, Michael Lerner and Allen Garfield are absolutely scene-stealing as the show's ringleaders, and Natalie Wood's lovable cameo gave the ultimate touch of authenticity. Apart from that, the result is rather forgettable, lacking that spice we expect from a political satire.
"The Candidate" could have been on the same prophetic wit as "Network", "Wag the Dog" or "A Face in the Crowd" but the film was as frustrating as McKay struggling during his speeches. Jeremy Larner might have won an Oscar, but a Paddy Cheyefsky he ain't. And unfortunately, the real highlight of the film happens to be the ending with the unforgettable "what do we do now?" that leaves Lucas, and the viewers, speechless. The film was so full of awkward painful-to-watch moments (can you imagine anything worse than a politician being speechless?), fitting the film's anticlimactic realism but so frustrating for viewers who expect a few explosive outbursts.
Redford remains an eternal enigma as a man we never quite see what goes on his mind, on TV or during a speech, challenging our patience but not rewarding it until the end, when he's put in the position he couldn't cheat anymore. I didn't know what he was going to do, but I guess I was glad they finally closed that door before we'd know. And that last minute gets me back to "The Godfather", again. The two films had similar opening and ending: one defeat speech from men who hadn't the stuff to 'win the game' and a door closing on the 'winner'.
As if Crime and politics were the two evil twins of power in America, except that the first door was closed on an intimate room while the second left the protagonist with the public. And I'm not quite sure which is worse: fooling the law in secrecy or fooling the public in total openness?
Jeremy Larner's brilliant, behind-the-scenes look at a modern political campaign and the marketing experts who make them work stars Robert Redford as an anti-politics California liberal reluctantly drawn into a race for the U.S. Senate with the naive hope of actually making a difference. He discovers, too late, that government isn't about issues or representation, but about exposure and packaging, marching bands and American flags; in other words, all the empty flotsam which, years later, now seems to mark the entire political process. The early '70s fashions are badly dated, but the film itself is more incisive than ever, showing how campaign attitudes, and sometimes even the actual speeches, haven't changed at all since 1972. Director Michael Ritchie reinforces the near-documentary authenticity by enlisting celebrities to portray themselves, from Natalie Wood to Mike Wallace. In 1988 the film was named by then Vice Presidential candidate Dan Quayle as a career influence, despite his obviously having missed the point of it entirely.
This film is a masterpiece in lots of ways. First of all excellent screenplay and an amazing supporting cast (Allen Garfield as Redford's ad man and Melvyn Douglas as Redford's father). Robert Redford plays Bill Mc Kay a young lawyer, son of Governor John J. McKay who becomes a candidate for senator. Mc Kay is very sympathetic and handsome too. Robert Redford is really incredible in this film, as an idealistic young lawyer torn between principle and ambition. Bob is definitely one of the talented actors of our time. This film has also a timeless message and should be shown before every election. What is also really very interesting in this film is how Bill Mc Kay evolves and how the political machine changes him. Finally we realize particularly at the end that he's no different from Crocker Jarmon his opponent (the debate scene is brilliantly performed by both actors Robert Redford and Don Porter).Indeed, what Bill Mc Kay stands for, his priorities, his principles will be sacrificed just to get elected as he realizes that he can win. Michael Ritchie does a brilliant job as well directing this film A MUST SEE movie that deserves a sequel.
*** 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...
Robert Redford, reveling in his finest form (as in The Natural, ATPM,
Brubaker & Indecent Proposal) is an idealistic young lawyer, who is
sucked into the vacuum of politics - initially refusing to build up his
profile by taking a free ride on the coat tails of his ex-senator
father. American political films are common, but good ones are quite
rare. This film falls into that latter category. Bill McKay agrees to
run for Senate believing he can remain true to his values - honesty,
realism, ideology, independence and a healthy distrust of policy for
policy's sake. On that basis alone, he is an idiot, as the whole
process predictably obscures his opinions, blunts his marriage and sees
him struggle with compromise.
Mc Kay is rushed around town as the new kid on the block, taking in snatched TV slots, endorsement opportunities, talking with union workers and disenchanted youth along the way. However, 'The better way' is blocked at the outset by the sitting tenant, Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter). As a time-served Mr American and the holder of an office that he feels he deserves just for parking his butt on the seat of history, 'The Croc' is a magnificent enemy. Note the key scene where McKay simply loses patience in a TV head to head with Jarmon. A house of cards seems to fall around his ears and what does The Croc do? Easy - he makes capital out of it in his smug dignified 'I would never stoop so low' brand of schmultz. You gotta love that guy.
The final scene (even though you can guess the outcome of the plot) is a gripper. Mc Kay, among the chaos, manages to get a minute's privacy with Marvin, his overwhelmed agent, who has even combed his beard on the advice of his staff. He simply asks him 'What happens now?'. That left a chill with me when I first saw the film and, on a re-view, the impact is still just as strong. On that basis, 'The Candidate' has stood the test of time as the deep stink of party politics is as rancid as it ever was.
Michael Ritchie is not a director I know much of, aside from his previous Redford collaboration, Downhill Racer, which I thought was average. How nice to be proved wrong, therefore, as this film is definitely a director's badge of honour. It is also extremely well acted across the range. I understand there was talk of a sequel and it is a shame that it never materialized.
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