As the US gears up for another presidential election, Fiona Pleasance watches a film about a blond outsider taking on the political establishment with unexpected success.
Had enough of the current level of political discourse in the world? Can’t face another debate about Brexit, or a discussion of this year’s US presidential contenders? Finding the idea of holing up and doing nothing but watching movies increasingly appealing? Then I have a suggestion for you. A movie about politics, so that you can still claim relevance. But a film made over forty years ago which has interesting things to say about today. And one which shows us the seeds of trends which are bearing so much poisonous fruit in 2016.
Michael Ritchie’s 1972 film The Candidate may not be as well-known as other movies about the US political system in the 1970s, like All the President’s Men or The Parallax View, or those about elections, like Primary Colors or The Ides of March. Its director is not especially renowned, and its writer only worked on one other movie, though he did win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for this one. But The Candidate, which is built around a strong, attractive central performance by Robert Redford, is remarkably prescient about the manipulations and compromises involved in achieving electoral success in the modern media age. Particularly in these rather troubling times, it is acute and perceptive and well worth a look.
The setup is deceptively simple: Bill McKay (Robert Redford), the idealistic son of a former Governor of California, is working as an environmental lawyer when Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) asks him to run as the Democratic candidate in the senatorial race for California. As the current Republican incumbent is very popular, and McKay is unlikely to win, he agrees, on the condition that he can say and do whatever he wants during the campaign. But by saying and doing what he wants, McKay becomes so appealing that he starts to rise in the polls, with the result that he can no longer say and do whatever he wants. As his candidacy develops its own momentum, to the point where winning becomes a very real possibility, he finds himself increasingly sacrificing his personal integrity.
The contradiction at the heart of the film is explicit from the start. McKay only agrees to run in order to gain greater public exposure for his environmental work, and just wants to do what he thinks is right. His honesty is his greatest asset, but the very act of running for political office leads to compromises at every stage. Behind him stands the cuddly, Machiavellian figure of Marvin Lucas, who claims not to expect McKay to win – he even offers him a written “guarantee” to that effect – but seems to be doing his darndest to ensure the opposite, from choosing the most attractive candidate for the job in the first place, to calling in Daddy against McKay’s express wishes when it looks as though the campaign could use some help. (It’s a lovely touch to have ex-Governor McKay Senior played by Melvyn Douglas, who was politically engaged throughout his long career, and whose wife Helen Gahagan Douglas was a Congresswoman and senatorial candidate for California herself – against Richard Nixon, no less).
Above all, The Candidate takes a hard look at the state of political campaigning early in the modern media era. The 1960s had seen increasing use of TV advertising and televised debates in US elections, and Nixon would go on to win the Presidency in 1972, the year of The Candidate’s release, aided by the proficient use of ads attacking his opponent, George McGovern.
In that sense, as Marvin Lucas recognises, Bill McKay – sincere, natural, insanely handsome – is the perfect candidate for the televisual age. Once the sideburns come off and he learns to stick to the script, when the soundbites are written and memorised to be trotted out as appropriate, what can possibly go wrong?
Actually, the film shows things going wrong quite a lot, particularly at the start of the campaign, but once they settle down and the wheels start to turn a bit more smoothly, the pressure is turned inward, onto the candidate himself. Two scenes are crucial here. In the first, after a montage of rousing speeches given by McKay – actually, the same speech over and over again in different locations – we join the character being driven to yet another meeting. In the back of the car, McKay breaks down all of the key phrases of his speech to a meaningless verbal soup while Marvin and the driver exchange nervous glances. They’re right to be worried. In the second scene, which takes places shortly afterwards, McKay cracks up repeatedly while attempting to record a TV pitch. It’s as if the ridiculousness of the situation has finally caught up with him. But the ridiculousness is compounded by the fact that McKay still wins the election.
The Candidate also poses the question: what next? With everything focused on the act of winning in and of itself, what happens afterwards? McKay doesn’t actually know, so he pulls Marvin aside to ask him. Is he any the wiser? What do you think? The fact that the film lets the newly-minted Senator and his chief political advisor exit with a clamouring crowd and leave the camera – and the viewers – behind in an empty room should give you a pretty good idea.
One theory dates American disillusionment with politics to Watergate, and what that scandal revealed about political power and its abuses. But in fact,The Candidate was released before Watergate broke, and shows that modern political cynicism can actually be traced back to the increasingly politicised and polarised 1960s, the time when the oldest of the Baby Boomers, the first generation to grow up with television, came of age.
As such, the film firmly blames the media focus on image, soundbites and other superficial elements in election campaigns for cheapening the discourse and leading candidates for political office away from their ideals. As the film’s screenwriter Jeremy Larner wrote in an article for the LA Times in August 2000, “…if The Candidate has truly become a classic, the reason is that the real-life tactics and attitudes we observed have mushroomed in the era of the permanent presidential campaign. The subsuming of politics into show business and the shallowness of pop-political stardom are what we have to watch out for.”
In 2016, this feels more true than ever.
The Candidate is available in the UK on DVD and Amazon Video.