The Candidate (1972)

Rates: * * * *

Why Did I Watch It? It is name checked in ‘Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail’ and it has been on my future watch list ever since.

Cast, crew, etc.


Bill McKay is the son of a former California Governor, who gets roped into a long shot tilt at a Senate seat against a popular Republican incumbant. His underdog status brings freedom; he weighs in on the controversial issues, stakes out ideological positions, and speaks his mind. But as the race narrows, will he resort to a more conventional campaign; is he just another politican after all?

Michael Richie’s satirical comedy-drama perfectly captures the jittery, caffeinated energy of a US political campaign. I especially liked how the film showed momentum; from Redford greeting indifferent factory workers, who don’t know who he is, and giving speeches to empty halls, to the 24/7 glare of a prime time, high profile race. The frustrations of being ignored, transformed into the pressures of expectation.

Redford delivers one of his best performances as the charismatic, political neophyte/natural. As an actor, he often relies on his looks and charm – much as his character in this does as a candidate – but here he steps out of his comfort zone. While Bill McKay has a lot of great ideas and is more savvy than people realise, he can also be petulant, inconsiderate and indecisive. There are some great moments when Redford gets flustered, or forgets his talking points, struggles to express himself, that have an off-the-cuff tone that is at odds with Redford’s usual smooth screen persona; an impressive feat of acting, well matched to Richie’s style. Peter Boyle is tops as well, as Redford’s wily campaign manager.

This would have played very topical in its day, and while a specific proposal like ‘bussing’ is no longer part of contemporary politics, the problem underlying that idea – racial equality – is more relevant than ever. Indeed, it is remarkable how many of the contentious issues in the film are still polarising today; gender equality, abortion, the social safety net, the size and role of government. All remain hot button topics in western countries. You realise how deep rooted these issues are and how little progress, despite a neverending debate that has lasted five decades, has been made since, by either side to convince the other.

Politics as depicted is a dirty game, but also a circular one; how you decide who the winner is, is unclear. Some players, like Redford’s opponent, measure their success through the power and access it brings them. Some of Redford’s unsuccessful collleagues value the fight, and the opportunity to speak up on issues they believe in. Redford’s motivations are uncertain, which is a sly ace that the film holds on to, till the last hand. Just why did he run?

The final line of the film provides an answer, but your read of it will vary. It is either cyncial, or hopeful. Political campaigns, like movies, are all smoke and mirrors, and people find the meanings they want within them.