The Candidate (1972)

Directed by Michael Ritchie

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“What do we do now?”

Bill McKay (Robert Redford) is the young handsome Democratic nominee for Senator in the state of California.  He is chosen by Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) to run an unwinnable race against sitting Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter), and because it seems all but certain he will lose, Lucas encourages McKay to run on whatever platform he chooses, to say whatever he wants.

McKay has a hand in local politics, and he finds meaning in these small battles.  To Lucas the changes he has a hand in are but a drop in the bucket, though McKay insists he is happy with there things are.  The chance to run for senate, however, affords him an opportunity to communicate his values to a wider audience.

With little opposition, McKay wins the Democratic primaries, but when Lucas sees just how far behind in the polls he is behind Jarmon, he becomes concerned they won’t just be defeated but be embarrassed.  He persuades McKay to tone down his stance on a variety of issues to appeal to a wider range of voters.

This turns McKay the idealist into McKay the politician.  Suddenly his message is barely distinguishable from the other candidate.  Where his responses to early questions were direct, sincere and sometimes painfully honest (“What would you do about property taxes?” “I don’t know.”), soon they become bloated with empty rhetoric and misdirection.

And yet, McKay continues to do well in the polls.  He will have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment in which, during a televised debate with Jarmon, he goes off script and speaks directly to the people.  It’s a blend of old and new, welding together his initial ideals and his politicians’ rhetoric.  This will help him ultimately win the election.

The Candidate presents a fairly straightforward arc.  McKay is something like Robert Dupea in Five Easy Pieces, a young man who seems to have stepped purposefully away from his father and family tradition.  McKay’s father John (Melvyn Douglas) is a former Governor who is continually brought up due to their family connection.  Jarmon will argue that Bill McKay is merely the privileged son of the former Governor, riding his coattails like, I imagine, some viewed each subsequent Kennedy.

If there was a rift between the McKays it doesn’t last long.  As Bill McKay becomes more serious about the campaign, he will discuss life and politics with his father, partially to ensure he has his old man’s endorsement and partially to gleam some wisdom from him.

The older McKay knows something the younger one doesn’t.  That implied divide between them at the start is gone by the end, but such a conflict is erased only by Bill McKay turning into his father, becoming the man his father probably always wanted him to be.  It’s in this transformation that Bill McKay loses his own identity.

When we meet him he is a young, handsome, in command Bohemian type.  He has long hair and longer sideburns, a group of diverse friends who all feel as though they’ve come together to build a family of their own when the ones they were born into failed them, and he is in a healthy relationship with his photographer wife, Nancy (Karen Carlson).

By the end Nancy becomes nothing more than a ‘candidate’s wife,’ her humanity just as stripped away in an effort to fit into a pleasing image that can be sold to voters.  She and McKay are something like robots, constructed through data science and designed to offend no one.  Their carefree confidence of the first act is no more.

So the rise of McKay’s candidacy contradicts his descent as a person.  It’s not that he becomes outright evil, but in an effort to appeal to more voters he becomes a shell of who he once was, like a young bull turned into a taxidermy’d prop.  He still looks the same, but we can see the lack of a sparkle in his eye and the disappearance of the sincerity in his voice.

There is one wonderful scene in which McKay talks to himself in the back of a car, spouting more of the political jargon nonsense that he’s become so good at.  His campaign managers sit in the front seat, sharing concerned glances, and McKay just drowns in the backseat, lost in his own bullsh*t.  This is what he has been reduced to.

The film ends with the line quoted at the top.  McKay wins, but we’re reminded of his direct responses early in the story, about not knowing.  He has a few strong opinions, but for the most part he is clueless.  That cluelessness was sold to the voters as honesty and humanity, but in the end it remains nothing more than cluelessness.

From what I can tell, The Candidate was released in 1972 only a couple weeks after the Watergate break in which would two years later demand Richard Nixon’s resignation and forever change the ways people regard politicians, both in life and especially in movies.  It would be only four years later that Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman would play the Washington Post reporters who took down the President.

Bill McKay at one point offers up the same peace symbol that had been Nixon’s trademark, and perhaps there are some other overlaps between their characters.  From where I stand today, however, the satire offered up by The Candidate is much less scathing than it likely would have been only a handful of years later.  The final beat reminds us that while McKay is handsome and well-spoken, he’s clueless, as if that’s the big indictment of politicians at the time.  While certainly striking, it doesn’t go as far as later political satires that suggest politicians are not clueless but sinister (a la The Ideas of MarchHouse of Cards).

Up Next: Boomerang! (1947), Pete’s Dragon (2016), High Noon (1952)

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