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 is allowed to say what he wants, and that he will lose the election in the end.
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, and 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. Echoes of Robert Drew’s 1960 documentary Primary can be found in the handheld camerawork and close zooms, in the revealingly awkward scenes of McKay standing roadside to shake people’s hands, or being briefed 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- are slowly neutralized, and success begins to look ever more likely.
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 in the moment the movie was written, 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?