Recently, I caught a screening of the 1972 classic, "The Candidate", about a young idealist persuaded to run for state Senator on the promise that he will lose, thereby allowing him to say anything he likes. Directed by Michael Ritchie and starring Robert Redford as the golden boy candidate, the film offers a fresh look through an old lens at our hackneyed political system.
Redford plays Bill McKay, the son of beloved retired Senator John J. McKay. Due to the son's tireless efforts in environmental circles and his father's efforts in business development and hunting circles, the two do not see eye to eye. When the Democratic Party shows up on the young McKay's doorstep, specifically in the form of Marvin Lucas, played brilliantly by Peter Boyle, they convince him that the run is all for show. They simply need a candidate to face popular incumbent, Republican Senator Crocker Jarmon, played with smarmy despicable-ness by Don Porter.
Naturally, people take to the handsome, truthful words of McKay and the climbing poll numbers quickly scraps the original plan; they're playing to win now – only everyone forgot to tell McKay and his plain-speaking "Why aren't we talking about issues that matter?" approach still causes his team to cringe now and again.
The current relevancy of this forgotten cinematic gem cannot be understated. Sure, the film is hokey and even campy in some places but the message is still clear: American politics is about selling a face and a slogan, not issues or solutions. During his first hastily assembled press conference, McKay is asked what he will do about crime. He hesitates, then responds honestly, "I don't know." The reporters find him refreshingly candid and the TV cameras haven't even seen him yet, not to mention the ladies. He merely has to coast on the family name and charming good looks and he's home free.
In one telling scene, an old friend of his father's comments that young Bill will never win, he doesn't know how to "play the game." His father, played to hard-drinkin', old coot perfection by Melvyn Douglas, laughs uproariously in response, "Of course he'll win. He's cute!" One shudders at this with an image of a befuddled Dan Quayle becoming one heartbeat away from . . . oh god, I feel faint . . .
"The Candidate" is part fantasy world, where a person could run for office, say what they believed in, believed in what they said and have a real shot at victory. We know now this is nearly impossible. The film also reveals the massive machine behind a candidate that grows to outrageous proportions. We often see McKay sitting all alone, looking shell-shocked and used, while frantic bodies run around him, working the phones, yelling out decisions and talking about him as if he weren't there.
"The Candidate" was recently shown in Oakland's beautiful Paramount Theatre, where 80% of the film was shot, mainly as McKay's campaign headquarters. The irony is not lost – politics is theatre, where the movie stars always win. Take heed.
© 2005 - Heather Clisby - Air Date: 9/22/04
USA - 1972