Thursday, December 9, 2010
THE CANDIDATE (1972): A Cute Political Movie
The tagline for the movie posters of The Candidate went like this: “Too handsome. Too liberal. Doesn’t have a chance. He’s perfect!” The promoters of the movie also threw in a cynical aside when advertising the movie by saying, “Nothing matters more than winning. Not even what you believe in.” And the reviewers (and practically nobody else) bought into the hype of this movie as much as the voters of California bought into the political promises of candidate, Bill McKay. Here’s an example: Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, writing for Spirituality and Practice, say of this “timely and aesthetically unified view of the contemporary political scene” the following in their February 13, 2002 review:
“ ‘The Candidate’ hits the bull’s eye revealing the hollow center of a campaign manipulated by media mercenaries and political Machiavellis who value victory over integrity and substantive moral issue.”
So, since we are now once again in election season, and since the two major parties have already revealed the names of the candidates running for President in 2008, I felt like being the only reviewer to suggest some thirty-six years later that The Candidate is neither a major motion picture nor a prophetic piece of work.
Bill McKay (Robert Redford) is a crusading attorney that defends labor and environmental interests from the corporate bad guys. Like Jerry Brown (who was the California Secretary of State at the time this movie was released and who soon was to run for Governor of California), McKay happens to be a lawyer that is also the son of a former governor, John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas). The father and son at first are not really on speaking terms because John is a realist and Bill is an idealist. All that is about to change. Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle – with a beard) comes up with a brilliant strategy to unseat the current California Senator, Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter). Lucas persuades Bill to enter the Senate race by telling him that, since he has no chance of winning in any case, Bill can speak out on any issue during the campaign as forthrightly as possible. Bill likes the idea. Bill’s gorgeous wife Nancy (Karen Carlson) also likes the idea. And so, predictably, he decides to run. Equally predictable, all the incendiary comments that Bill would like to tell his audiences are toned down to make him more palatable as a candidate.
The campaign staff is made up of a cranky media consultant (Allen Garfield) and a bunch of Bill McKay groupies (one of which seduces Bill inside of a hotel room). By the time that Bill receives the Democratic nomination for the senate seat, most everyone wants to vote for him because he’s so damn good looking. The voters don’t really seem to care that he’s no longer speaking about the issues. Bill does have one problem, however. His father does not seem to be all that supportive of his son and this is being noticed in the media. Somehow or other, the campaign staff has to get John McKay on board. This is done in two ways: (1) Bill, if elected, implicitly agrees to give political favors to a labor leader that happens to be a friend of John McKay in return for the labor leader delivering to Bill a large number of blue-collar votes; and (2) Bill does such an outstanding job in a televised debate with Senator Jarmon of avoiding speaking directly about any issue that John McKay now becomes convinced that his son has a chance to win. Bill almost let the debate slip away when he suggested that the United States was on the threshold of a violent revolution in the streets, but his father assured him that nobody would notice this gaff. Anyway, Bill with his good looks and impeccable demeanor made Senator Jarmon look folksy and unsophisticated.
Bill, of course, wins the election. In the words of former Minnesota Governor, Jesse Ventura, he “shocked the world.” At the end of the movie, he corners Lucas in a hotel room and asks him what he’s supposed to do now since he’s the only one in the state of California that didn’t realize that he might just win.
Most critics were in awe of this film’s credentials. Jeremy Larner, a former speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy, wrote the screenplay for this movie. However, the reviewers should keep in mind that it was directed by Michael Ritchie who also directed The Bad News Bears, The Golden Child, Fletch and Fletch Lives (speaking of “cute”). If one looks at the list of movie critics on the Rotten Tomatoes website, the movie The Candidate receives a 100 percent approval rating from those critics so inclined to provide a review. (I’m ineligible to provide any reviews to the Rotten Tomatoes website since I am not affiliated with any film critics’ society. Thus, from my own biased perspective, it seems implausible that a truly independent take on a movie can be given by joining such a cooperative.) In any case, the unanimity of praise for this movie that only political junkies have ever even discussed makes one suspicious that critical acumen is lacking in the analysis of this film. At one point in the movie, Melvyn Douglas as John McKay utters a line to his labor leader friend as to why he’s convinced his son will win the election: “Because he’s cute.” Granted, it’s a good line, but the same thing could be said about this film - it being cute. The Candidate is too perfectly packaged to be believable. Redford is too polished, eloquent and attractive to be running for political office. Even JFK was not this perfect in his outward presentation. And Don Porter as Crocker Jarmon so instantly appears so insincere that we’re practically convinced he was a used car salesman that has violated the California State Lemon Law. To sum up, this movie is totally slanted. Even if the voters knew in advance everything about Bill McKay that the movie audience knew, they would have voted for McKay in any case when the alternative was Crocker Jarmon.
To be fair, the film has its strengths. For example, I don’t have a problem with the storytelling technique. The Candidate does not become sidetracked by meaningless side dramas (like marital tiffs or petty underworld schemes) to make the movie unwatchable. It instead tells us a simple story. Being 114 minutes in length, it actually moves well. Melvyn Douglas and Peter Boyle are both well cast in their roles, and Redford even excels here and does an average job of acting. (A mild criticism is that The Candidate does have a somewhat dated feeling in that none of the characters make us forget that we’re watching a 1970s movie.)
Unfortunately, there are many more serious flaws with this film. The Candidate is simply not as timely, contemporary or relevant as the many critics would like us to believe. For one, rumors about fixed elections, voter fraud, dirty tricks, manipulation of the issues and voter gullibility have been present for as long as we have had democracy. If Bill McKay did not understand in advance that some packaging was essential for running for political office perhaps he truly was as big of a rube as Crocker Jarmon. For two, it uses a dated formula that has more successfully been used in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (however naïve the ending of that movie may have been) and All the King’s Men. The voters in political movies are always duped by the bogus pleasantries of the candidates. And finally, The Candidate suggests no solution. It’s easy to imply that our system for selecting candidates is imperfect. It’s another matter to come up with a solution any better that does not allow for the appointment of politicians by a relatively small number of people.
We are led to believe in The Candidate that it would have been better for Bill McKay to stick to his ideals, even if it meant losing. Never mind that it is possible to value victory and integrity at the same time. The voters would have lost here in either case because neither Bill McKay nor Crocker Jarmon gave us much to be desired. As far as Bill McKay was concerned, I’m not sure remaining a fuzzy minded idealist would have enhanced his qualifications in any way (idealists of that type have a difficult time ever comprehending that they might be wrong), but victory was not the worst thing that could have occurred for him or his party. Most Democrats still regret not achieving victory in the 2000 Presidential election some eight years later. And we can rest assured that Republicans would be bemoaning their fate to this day if Al Gore had been elected President for two terms. Right or wrong, most voters want something specific from a candidate when they go into the voting booth (as long as they know the candidates at all – which is not always the case and I guess is the point of the movie). They’re voting for what they consider the lesser of two evils. That’s not to say that the voter’s analysis of the issues was precise, or that they’re not prone to error. It’s just that there are a lot worse methods for choosing a leader. Besides, holding elections every four years means that no mistake in choosing a leader is likely to become permanent. The positive side of the way most elections are held is that if the voter does recognize to making an error, they can take that vote back in the very next election. You don’t get that sort of benefit when only a small number of people (however qualified) make the decisions for the rest of us. Though it doesn’t happen often enough, we are still one of the few societies to run a head of state out (Nixon in 1974) without having to resort to “revolution in the streets.” Yet The Candidate almost sends out the unintentional message that what the voter thinks is of no value because he is being duped in any case. The Candidate is a piece of witty nonsense wrapped up in the cloak of something profound. It contains some clever satire along with the pretension of some insight.
June 24, 2008
© Robert S. Miller 2008