The Candidate (1972) – A Review
Bill McKay (Robert Redford) has been convinced by political election specialist Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) to make a run for the California Senate. A Democratic candidate is needed to fill the slot against a Republican incumbent who is thought to be a shoo-in for his fourth term in office so they need someone for him to run against and defeat and Lucas thinks McKay is the perfect candidate.
McKay agrees to toss his hat in the ring if only he can run his campaign his way and say what he truly believes. Even if he loses at least he can bring some of the political issues he cares about to the election stage. It’s pretty easy to speak your mind when there’s nothing on the line.
But McKay’s honesty and vigor begins to gain him much more support than Lucas had expected and it starts looking like there’s a real shot of McKay winning. So in order to secure votes McKay has to adapt to the political arena and ends up playing things a bit differently than how he began.
The Candidate has a great performance by Redford. He begins as an undeterred, awkward idealist, getting thrust in and chewed up by the political machine then gradually transitioning into a cynical candidate. He becomes adept at tip-toeing thru the issues, giving calculated speeches and using the media to present a more demographically wide-reaching likable candidate than he had ever initially planned to be. Directed by Michael Ritchie, The Candidate is a political comedy satire that is as relevant and timely today as when it was made in 1972.
Despite McKay putting up resistance at first he’s soon pressured by Lucas that nixing his original priorities is a necessity in order to win. He’s got to become an all-encompassing candidate that everyone will want to vote for. So, gradually his speeches become more rhetoric-filled, his answers more vague, his beliefs get watered down and his poll numbers go up.
After making it clear he would never do it, McKay folds and grudgingly asks for support by his estranged father (Melvyn Douglas) who happens to be the former governor. McKay willing agrees to political favors and making deals. Throughout the movie all his honorable and best intentions are systemically washed away.
A lot of what transpires in The Candidate does come off as very covered ground today. Audiences are much more familiar with all the behind-the-scenes antics of politics than they probably were in 1972. The Candidate came out a year before Watergate, so a lot of what transpires must of seemed much more enlightening at that point in time to audiences.
One thing I was amused by was the focus on McKay’s political ads. The television spin doctor they recruit demonstrates how the use of television editing and the presentation of McKay’s political ads can be re-shaped to play better with viewers. It isn’t exactly revolutionary insight today. The first televised Presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960 and how vital the images they presented were to audiences has become a popular topic that everyone is pretty familiar with for decades. The 2012 Game Change primarily focused on the shaping and presentation of an ideal political candidate. Seeing it here shows these were not new tricks by any stretch and have been employed for a very long time.
Redford and Boyle are very good in this. The use of patriotic music throughout is a nice contrast to what is really unfolding. A lot of scenes are shot in a documentary-style as if we’re peeking behind the curtain of this campaign. And it has a terrific final scene and memorable line to leave you thinking.
After watching it I had wished I could have seen what came next for Bill McKay and where his political career was going to take him.