Director: Michael Ritchie
Writer: Jeremy Larner
Cinematographer: Victor J. Kemper and John Korty
by Jon Cvack
The Candidate precedes what would be established in Network and carried onto into Studio 60 on Sunset Strip, Bulworth, The Newsroom, and what we’re currently experiencing with the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. The formula is simple - a politician finally speaks the Truth. However, counter to the idealism of the films that followed, The Candidate takes a look at how far the individual would go in order to gain the power, even at the cost of sacrificing their integrity. I never really picked up on this during the film so much as after, though I think that’s more on account of how much more recent films bash you over the head with the same idea. The descent into losing one’s soul is minute and subtle.
McKay (Robert Redford) begins as a successful environmental lawyer who’s recruited - for a reason I’m entirely not sure of - to challenge the incumbent Crocker Jarmon (who indubitably has the best challenger name in any political film; played by Don Porter). As he tries to gain ground, repeating the same talking points about inequality, housing, poverty, crime, and abortion, director Michael Ritchie follows along in a docu-drama way. It is clear that McKay doesn’t really know how he’s going to deliver on any of these promises. In the end, in pure 70s narrative ambiguity (see The Graduate), a victorious McKay takes his campaign manager Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) into a hotel room and asks what they’re suppose to do now that they've won. Lucas can’t hear him over the celebratory noise, unable to offer any insight.
What’s most gripping about the story is how prescient it was about the role of media in politics. Marvin and his team find the best way to say everything. They hire the best video producer who churns out inspiring and cheesy campaign videos after following McKay around manufacturing plants and inner city neighborhoods. Instead of saying he’s pro-choice (I’m not sure this phrase was developed yet), McKay is instructed to refer to the ongoing research. He has a script, and while veering away from it, never says anything too divisive.
And that’s what makes the whole film so prophetic. It’s as though we’re entering into an age where people know that most candidates walk on eggshells when giving any type of answer and films like this and others helped demonstrate why. When I hear Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton speak all I see are very carefully crafted talking points, based on marketing research and designed by the campaign team. Everything is polished. And then you have the Left and Right populist candidates who’re willing to shoot from the hip, drawing massive crowds on account of it. And it’s because polished candidates don’t seem real, especially as social media plays a more central aspect, that we want real people, not the manufactured candidates of yesteryear. It’s as though we’re entering into a new age of what politics could be. While before television and radio people depended on newspapers and possibly a chance to see them in person now we want to know everything - we want to know they are real people. Those who want to cater to the antiquated method of researching every point will not last long. It’s off the cuff that works. The Candidate saw what politics had become. It also saw where it was going. Strange to think that most of what these candidates discuss is the same - the Right thinks there are too many entitlements which make people lazy, and the Left is a champion of the poor and trying to even out the playing field. Nearly 45 years later and it’s the exact same. With the exception of the abortion-research talk, this movie could easily be remade with the same script and stay just as relevant. Talking off point or not, that’s kind of a bummer.
BELOW: 70s'style ambiguous ending
Thoughts on films, old and new
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