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The Candidate
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,The Candidate

The Candidate

As savvy about politics now as it was when it was released in 1972, The Candidate is the portrait of a fictional underdog political campaign in a world where image and perception are everything. A labor of love-and-anger project initiated by actor-turned-producer Robert Redford, it follows the campaign of a passionate and dedicated legal aid lawyer who is courted by the party to run against an entrenched veteran Senator in an election no one thinks he can win. Campaign manager Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) makes Redford's Bill McKay a promise: "You're free, McKay. You have a chance to say what you want." His promise is sealed with a contract scribbled on the inside cover of a matchbook: "You lose." Dubious of party politics of any stripe and not even registered to vote ("I never saw any reason to," he explains to Lucas), the quintessential young idealist steps into the political machine with a vow to get his message out and a determination not to let the machinery change him along the campaign trail.

According to the Redford biographers Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell, the actor was inspired to make a film about the political process while watching the 1968 political conventions and becoming frustrated at the way campaigns had become a pageant. He took the idea, still no more than a concept, to director Michael Ritchie (he had directed Redford in Downhill Racer [1969], Redford's debut feature as a producer). Ritchie was intrigued by the idea and they approached Jeremy Larner, a top speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy in his 1968 presidential bid, to write the screenplay. Larner had become disillusioned by the campaign (he wrote about it in his book Nobody Knows) and poured much of his frustration and disappointment into the screenplay, which is light on character definition but rich with details on the way campaigns are run, speeches are vetted and issues are negotiated. "The scenes between the campaign manager and the political commercial producer ought to be classified material," quipped co-star Melvyn Douglas, a politically savvy veteran in his own right.

Party affiliations are only vaguely invoked, but it doesn't take a degree in political science to peg McKay, a man focused on social welfare and racial and sexual equality, as the liberal Democrat interest and veteran Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) as the glad-handing, big-business friendly Republican. It also becomes increasingly clear just why the party finds the aggressively progressive McKay such an attractive candidate. He's not only young and passionate and photogenic, but he's also the son of a powerful retired politician, former state Governor John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas). "He's got the name, the looks and the power," remarks his wife, Nancy (Karen Carlson), who all too easily slips into the role of candidate's wife. And she's right, which seems to bother McKay more than anything else. Though he really believes in his campaign motto "A Better Way," he increasingly allows his handlers to shape it through the same old political methods and turn the phrase into a mere slogan.

Redford's performance anchors the film. McKay's frankness, his personability, his lack of polish and pat doublespeak appeals to a public jaded by political glibness, and his engagement with such issues as poverty and unemployment and the environment and social equality excite young and progressive voters. As his numbers rise, however, the political machine tries to steer him away from inflammatory issues like abortion and bussing. McKay bristles at these compromises yet he makes them, only occasionally stepping off message to bring up controversial social issues. Through the course of The Candidate we watch him evolve from an unpolished media rookie, overwhelmed by the cameras and nervous in facing the crowds, into a confident personality who has learned the fine art of talking around questions and deflecting issues with practiced humor.

To give the film greater immediacy, Ritchie and Redford shot much of the film like a political documentary. Campaign stops and speeches made around the state were staged like actual rallies, with crowds of citizens cheering on his speeches (it's been reported that some audiences believed that he really was running for office) and cameras filming it all as if it was a news event. To add to the verisimilitude, real local and national television news reporters appeared as themselves to comment upon the campaign (including a fictional editorial by the respected Howard K. Smith), and active politicians can be seen interacting with the fictional campaign. In one scene, Redford's friend and former co-star Natalie Wood appears as herself.

Redford approached veteran stage and screen actor Melvyn Douglas, a leading man in thirties Hollywood classics (such as Ninotchka, 1939) and an Oscar® winner for Hud (1963), to play his father as much for his political history as his acting talents. In addition to his own political activism and outspoken liberal views (which effectively "gray-listed" the actor during the fifties), Douglas' wife, Helen Gahagan Douglas, ran for the U.S. Senate against Richard Nixon (and lost) and was Treasurer of the United States under John F. Kennedy. Douglas thought the script a little sketchy. "It read more like an extended TV documentary than a feature film," he recalled later, and it was Redford's conviction that persuaded him to take the part. "He struck me as an artist with integrity and guts." Peter Boyle, best known for his performance as a violent bigot in Joe [1970], brings easy political savvy to his role as campaign manager Lucas, subtlety nudging McKay's rhetoric and political positions to the center while making it look like the candidate is still in charge of his own message. Allen Garfield plays the producer of the TV ads and the cast includes Michael Lerner and Kenneth Tobey. In a footnote, Broderick Crawford (who won an Oscar® playing political sell-out Willie Stark in All the King's Men, 1949) is the uncredited voice on Porter's campaign ads, while Barry Sullivan voices McKay's political spots.

The Candidate straddles the line between cynicism about the way election campaigns pander to the media and a frankness about the negotiations between the ideals of a candidate and the way he shapes his persona and message to get heard by the public and get votes in the election. What played as cynicism and satire then, however, is simply business as usual today, which is one of the reasons the film remains so prescient. The Candidate is set in the era of 16mm news cameras and one inch industrial videotapes, a time when there is no such thing as 24 hour news channels or viral Internet video. But while the tools and the news cycle have changed, the careful cultivation of message and image, the political doublespeak and opportunistic pandering is as contemporary as ever.

Screenwriter Jeremy Larner won the Oscar® in 1972 for Best Original Screenplay and the film became enormously influential. Many politicians cited the film as their inspiration for going into politics, including former Senator and Vice-President Dan Quayle (Larner responded in an editorial in the New York Times: "Inspiring such candidates was not out intention and I don't think the senator understood our movie"). Redford and Ritchie intended The Candidate to be the second in a series of films (beginning with Downhill Racer) "about what systems control our lives to produce winners," but it became their last collaboration. For years, Redford entertained the idea of doing a sequel to catch up with McKay decades later, a man entrenched in the very system that he was afraid would change his idealism, but to date that project has never gotten past the story stage.

Producer: Walter Coblenz
Director: Michael Ritchie
Screenplay: Jeremy Larner
Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper, John Korty
Music: John Rubinstein
Film Editing: Robert Estrin, Richard A. Harris
Cast: Robert Redford (Bill McKay), Peter Boyle (Lucas), Melvyn Douglas (John J. McKay), Don Porter (Jamon), Allen Garfield (Klein), Karen Carlson (Nancy), Quinn Redeker (Jenkin), Morgan Upton (Henderson), Michael Lerner (Corliss), Chris Prey (David).
C-110m. Letterboxed

by Sean Axmaker

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