The Candidate is that rare movie that is anchored firmly in its own time, released in June 1972, but remains relevant through until today. Writer Jeremy Larner won an Oscar for his screenplay, and his portrayal of election politics seems worryingly plausible. The Candidate is remarkably frank about its politics, but also in its depiction of the system. There’s no pussyfooting around for fear of alienating the audience with hostile political ideas, instead the film embraces its political position and runs from there. While it feels like it was written in the shadow of the then-looming 1972 Presidential election, it does seem to be quite applicable to modern politics.It remains relevant, perhaps an illustration of how little has changed.
If anything, it seems like The Candidate is relatively tame compared to current political realities.
Most modern political films are reluctant to acknowledge their political roots. The West Wing acknowledged that President Barlett was a Democrat, but 24 had a tough time conceding that President David Palmer was also a Democrat. (Though the show would occasionally concede it, you’d have to pay particularly close attention, as the scripts seemed reluctant to acknowledge his party.) While the original screen adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate conceded that the Iselin family were a Republican dynasty, the 2004 remake went to great trouble to make it ambiguous.
However, The Candidate is the story of a Democratic nominee for State Senator, and the film acknowledges his politics repeatedly. There’s no sense that the writer or director are wary of offending viewer’s sensibilities, or that they might pussyfoot around bold political ideas. McKay’s political ideas are never really to the fore – that is kind of the point, after all – but they are very clearly there. He is in favour of welfare, of abortion, of the environment. He doesn’t dance around these points, thorny though they might be.
Indeed, The Candidate makes a point of McKay having to temper his views for public discussion. In a rather small, but telling, exchange, the film makes a rather bold commentary on the dumbing down of political rhetoric in an attempt to avoid causing unwarranted offence. Asked about abortion in an interview, McKay voices his frank and simple opinion, “I feel every woman should have that choice.”
His political advisor immediately calls a halt to the interview, and immediately gets him to temper or qualify his answer. The whole discussion is friendly, and there’s no hostility, but his advisor manages to take what had been a bold and simple statement and effectively take it off the table. “How about this, we say it’s worth studying?” Marvin Lucas suggests. McKay finds himself unable to have any sort of meaningful political dialogue, because everything has to be tempered and qualified, toned down and avoided.
When McKay suggests cutting an advertisement including his stance on health clinics for disadvantaged areas, his aides show him the footage of his visit to a community doctor. The locals are less than happy to see him. “They’re not responding,” an aide comments, making it clear that the “grim scene” doesn’t make for good footage - “nobody’s listening, nobody’s diggin’ ya.” McKay inquires about the position itself, “What about what I’m saying?” His aide flippantly retorts, “What about it?”
McKay only involves himself in the race because he is told he has no chance of victory. “You don’t have a chance, McKay, so say what you want,” his advisor, Lucas, assured him. Free from the expectation of victory, McKay is in theory able to raise awareness of the community issues that he feels are slipping by unnoticed. However, even setting out to lose, he finds he has to temper his views, to the point where what he is saying is no less generic than any other political rhetoric.
He finds himself engaged in a conversation he can’t control – touring a disadvantaged neighbourhood to talk about standards of living, his father is all the reporters want to talk about. “I wonder if anybody understood what I was trying to do,” McKay laments to his father at one point during the race. His father assures him, “Don’t worry, son, it won’t make any difference.” It’s quite jarring and still remarkably cynical – even in an era where we’ve seen many other cynical explorations of the political process.
Jeremy Larner’s script seems anchored in the Presidential election of 1972. Although the film would be released before the election took place, it’s not too difficult to imagine Larner was heavily influenced by the politics of the time. In particular, McKay’s adversary, the Republican Senator Jarmon, seems heavily influenced by Richard Nixon. During the televised debate, one interviewer remarks, “Senator Jarmon, at the beginning of your campaign, your supporters predicted a record-breaking victory margin.” Nixon’s victory in the 1972 election was certainly decisive, with all but two of the states backing the Republican incumbent.
Jarmon’s rhetoric evokes that of Richard Nixon. McKay claims to speak for a new generation and the disenfranchised, positioning the older Jarmon as the stoic voice of the establishment. He never quite references Nixon’s “silent majority”, but he alludes to it as he plays up concerns about the aggressive agitation of the younger generation. “I’m reminded of the last days of the great Roman Empire. They argued about what vices they could legalise. And what happened was an onslaught that nearly spelled the end of civilisation.”
McKay himself seems modelled on one of the Kennedys, the political dynasty that had humbled Nixon in the 1960 election. McKay is presented as young and as decidedly in touch, much like the three Kennedy siblings – we’re told that he is “a man who shoots from the hip and is hip when he shoots.”It’s also heavily implied – although not outright stated – that McKay shares the same weaknesses as John F. Kennedy, shown to be cheating on his wife to the point where it interferes with his campaign obligations.
However, there’s also a sense that McKay might have a thing or two in common with Nixon’s 1972 adversary McGovern, a character deemed too liberal to be elected. McGovern’s campaign was a mess, but he also arguably far too left-wing for voters in 1972. While he suffered any number of unrelated setbacks, he was arguably too frank in his political views – labelled the “acid, amnesty and abortion” candidate. At one point early in the film, McKay finds himself warned to temper his views when he’s assured that his defeat will be “humiliating.” That’s an adjective that certainly applies to McGovern’s failed campaign.
And yet the film remains relevant outside of that context. Certainly the words of one television pundit still ring true – perhaps even truer than they did forty years ago. Accusing the candidates of “selling themselves like an underarm deodorant”, one critic laments the standard of political debate in modern America. (Indeed, it’s not really that much higher anywhere else, to be frank.) Forty years – and ten Presidential elections – later, those words still ring remarkably true, giving The Candidatean enduring relevance.
Redford is, as he was throughout the sixties and seventies, charming in the leading role. He seems to relish playing a dashing young man fighting to be seen as more than just a pretty face – trying to get his views across, but being dismissed far too easily by a society that doesn’t really value discourse and debate. Redford has a charisma that anchors the movie, and which helps us see McKay as a character rather than a springboard for criticism of the political system.
The Candidate is a solid piece of political cinema, and one that endures because of its endearing frankness.
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