The Candidate protagonist Bill McKay (Robert Redford) is a young lawyer and son of former California governor John J. McKay. He seems to resent his father’s political career and has no interest in following in his footsteps– until Marvin Lucas, political election specialist, approaches him to run against the established Republican senator Crocker Jarmon. McKay is ready to decline when Lucas writes something on the inside of a matchbox and slides it across to him: “YOU LOSE.” McKay agrees to run on the premise that he will say what he wants, and that he will lose the election in the end.
A Cinema verité-feel
Even being entirely fictional, The Candidate has an immediacy and cinema verité-feel inherited from the personal experiences of its writer and director. Larner, four years prior, had been the speechwriter for Senator Eugene J. McCarthy’s campaign for the 1968 democratic presidential election. His intimacy with political jargon and buzzwords is clear in the fast-flying dialogues between characters, an anxiety-producing flurry of voices interrupting and talking over one another.
Director Michael Ritchie, on the other hand, worked for John V. Tunney’s campaign in the 1970 Senate election and drew inspiration for Bill McKay’s character from the young democrat. The viewer can find echoes of Robert Drew’s 1960 documentary Primary in the handheld camerawork and close zooms. Also, they share revealingly awkward scenes, such as those of McKay standing roadside to shake people’s hands or during briefings on how best to appear on camera – even in Robert Redford himself, vaguely reminiscent of a Kennedy brother with all his youthful charisma. As the film proceeds in a succession of speeches, interviews, and strategy meetings, the audience watches as McKay’s convictions – and words – begin to soften, and success begins to look ever more likely.
A nuanced humor
Michael Ritchie’s film was defined as a dark political comedy when it was released, yet its satire pales in comparison to the real-world politics happening on TV screens today.
Its humor is a nuanced, philosophical kind, perhaps only possible at the moment the movie came out, before the Watergate scandal, before the heavy-handed political satires of the 90s like Wag the Dog or Canadian Bacon, and certainly before the Trump era. The performativity of politics, the crafting of a persona, the constrictions of the bi-partisan system: the modern cynicism surrounding these concepts had perhaps not developed yet, lending The Candidate its bite. Looking back, however, even the defused idealism of Bill McKay seems too good to be true, leaving audiences to wonder: when is it we became so jaded?