It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when the political process finally surrendered to the whim of the media machine and devolved into little more than a playground trade-off centred on bite-sized slogans and soundbites.
‘Playing the game’ has become a damning pre-requisite for those who seek to govern us, as Robert Redford’s idealist-turned-stooge Bill McKay comes to learn in Michael Ritchie’s exposé of the business-as-usual cynicism at the empty heart of party politics.
Largely filmed as if US senate candidate McKay is being shadowed by a documentary crew, often with the sort of overlapping dialogue you’d expect to hear under such frantic circumstances, The Candidate painstakingly (and painfully) shows how the hamster wheel of campaigning chips away at McKay’s principles.
A respected community organiser who has never registered to vote (“he’s never seen the point of it”, according to his wife), McKay is assured by campaign manager Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) that he can say and do what he wants because he doesn’t stand a chance against long-serving incumbent Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) – a deal Lucas seals by scribbling the words “you lose” on the inside of a matchbook.
However, before he can say “read my lips…”, McKay is being maneuvered from the liberal left to the safe centre ground; be it getting a haircut, donning a suit and tie just like his retired governor father (brilliantly played by Melvyn Douglas), or having his views skilfully edited by media manager Howard Klein (Allen Garfield) for the purposes of ‘man of the people’ TV ads.
McKay may spout hot air about being stifled from saying what he really thinks (for instance, when Lucas suggests McKay’s opinion on legalised abortion that “every woman should have that right” be watered down to “it’s worth studying”), but he ultimately does what he’s told – especially when the polls indicate the gap is closing on Jarmon.
Inversely, the further McKay moves away from the principles he once had, the more accomplished and popular he becomes with the people, who spout back his slogan “A better way” in ever-growing numbers.
Much like Warren Beatty, whose under-appreciated Bulworth (1998) is The Candidate turned on its head, Redford wears his politics on his sleeve. However, he cleverly undermines his liberal poster-boy image in his portrayal of a weak-willed puppet unable and ultimately unwilling to break the mould.
When real-life political commentator Howard K. Smith cuts to the bone of McKay’s campaign by exclaiming that “the Madison Avenue commercial has taken over as his standard means of persuasion; the voters are being asked to choose McKay as they would a detergent”, the candidate can only watch with the look of someone resigned to their fate.
The absurdity of the situation is encapsulated late on when a frazzled McKay self-mockingly starts jumbling his speeches together into one giant meaningless soundbite, while the lost boy look he gives Lucas when he asks “what do we do now?” after their unexpected election victory is priceless.
As relevant and contemporary now as it was at the time of its release in the dark days of Nixon, The Candidate is a reminder, should one be needed, that the house always wins.