Unfortunately, politics have been around since the beginning of time. I absolutely cannot stand politics. I find today’s political climate very toxic and damaging to one’s mental health. But, I do like political-oriented stories if they’re presented in a historical context (e.g. All the President’s Men), or if the politics are presented in a fictional narrative, where there’s no blatant agenda or propaganda–just a basic story about someone running for an office or some other aspect of the political arena.
The Candidate, directed by Michael Ritchie (Downhill Racer, Bad News Bears, Smile) depicts the fictional election of the 1972 California Senate seat within the US Senate. Peter Boyle plays Marvin Lucas, an election specialist who is tasked with finding a viable Democratic candidate for the California Senate seat in the US Senate. The incumbent, Republican Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter aka Sally Field’s dad in TV’s Gidget), is extremely popular and seemingly is a shoe-in for re-election. He’s so popular in fact, that solid Democratic candidates are convinced that running against him is futile because it’s a given that they’ll lose.
After seeing an article about San Diego lawyer, Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in the newspaper, Lucas decides that he is the perfect candidate to run against Jarmon. To sweeten the pot, McKay is also the son of former California Governor, John McKay (Melvyn Douglas). Hoping to cash-in on his connection to the former governor, Lucas visits McKay at his office and makes him a proposition: Because it’s a given that Jarmon will win, if McKay agrees to campaign for California Senate, he can mount whatever type of campaign he wants. Despite not particularly wanting to be Senator, McKay agrees because he feels that this will be a good opportunity to speak about about some of his pet causes like: ecology, civil rights, and legal aid.
McKay easily wins the nomination and mounts a grassroots campaign and his charisma and realism helps him quickly attract supporters. However, his campaigning isn’t doing enough and preliminary election projections show that McKay is not only going to lose the election, he’s going to be obliterated. Not wanting McKay to be embarrassed, Lucas informs him that they will need to mount a more serious, conventional campaign. McKay goes along Lucas’ plan.
McKay’s campaign begins to transform into a more typical political campaign. He is given pre-written answers to questions and is asked to give more standard answers, pandering to the American public. His answers are full of buzzwords and other shallow phrases, designed to sound good, but mean absolutely nothing. McKay begins receiving criticism for seemingly drifting away from his ideals and mounting a more typical campaign.
As McKay gets deeper and deeper into the election, he begins to question his integrity and how much he’s willing to compromise his ideals to win a campaign for an office that he wasn’t interested in winning in the first place. His dilemma comes to head during a debate with Jarmon.
Jarmon represents the celebrity candidate. He knows how to pander to his supporters. He knows how to appeal to his supporters with big, splashy galas and rallies. Jarmon knows what buzzwords to say, what empty phrases to use. He knows how to make promises to his supporters without actually making any promises at all. Jarmon interjects himself into situations (e.g. the forest fire in Malibu) to make him seem like he cares, but he doesn’t really. He says words like “Change” and “America” a lot.
McKay, on the other hand, is the naive, wide-eyed candidate. He’s the one who has no idea what he’s “supposed” to say, what his supporters want to hear. McKay has his laundry list of issues that he wants to fix and actually has ideas on how to fix these issues. He holds rallies to try and attract supporters. McKay says the wrong thing. He says the right thing. And of course, because it’s Robert Redford*, he attracts the young women to his camp because he’s attractive. Being eye-candy never hurt anyone’s campaign. (Honestly, it’s not often that attractive people run for any sort of office).
*For the record, in the never-ending “Paul Newman or Robert Redford?” debate, I am Team Redford all the way.
Despite his inexperience, McKay’s grassroots campaign gains traction. He is charismatic. McKay appeals to all facets of society: the unemployed, the minorities, everyone–not just the wealthy. He wants to fix widespread issues that are actually hurting the voters of the country–like joblessness and poverty. Corporations and taxes aren’t the point of his campaign. He wants to help the actual voters and the environment in which they live. As his supporter base grows, so does the size of his campaign–and before he knows it, McKay is running a bonafide political campaign.
I was on a Robert Redford kick a while back and found this film on HBO Max. I have since watched it three times and really enjoy it. In 1972, The Candidate was released as a satire of the American political system. But is this film really a satire?
Many of the situations presented in this campaign are still true today. The hypocrisy present in both major political parties is the same. The way in which the public responds to the different candidates is the same. The pandering and fake promises are the same. The mudslinging between the candidates is the same. While social media changes the medium in which information is spread, the way in which it persuades (or dissuades) is the same.
Everything is the same. The same tactics that were used in 1972 are used today in 2020.
I highly recommend watching The Candidate. While I’ve never run for office (and don’t plan on doing so), I feel that the way in the film depicts how a campaign is run, how the candidates are asked to sell-out their personal convictions in the name of winning, and how the political parties try to manipulate the voters into supporting them is still very timely today. This film would make a good companion piece to All the President’s Men. Aside from the Redford connection, this film can show what happens when someone in an important political office (e.g. THE PRESIDENT) sacrifices their integrity (if they had any) in the name of winning.
I wouldn’t touch politics with a “39 and a half-foot pole,” but I would watch The Candidate again and again.