Only recently does it seem like the political world has been soiled by entertainment media. HBO's "Veep", created by the satirically minded Armando Iannucci, is a brutal comedy series that details the day to day life of the vice president. Don't expect to see an all-American woman pining for a better America, because you get a narcissist hungry for power. Netflix's "House of Cards" makes politics seem as dirty as the crime world, with elected officials offing enemies left and right, utilizing corruption for the sake of unbridled authority.
In days past, there was something mystical about a candidate — the one we loved (not the Nixon of the race) seemed to be a sort of god who could do no wrong. Look at JFK, FDR; they were far from perfect, but their image, their reputation, turned them into unspeakably untouchable icons. But it seems post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, America has turned into a hotbed of negativity. We don't trust our sacred politicians like we used to. And so "The Candidate" is more relevant than ever. In 1972, the U.S. was just starting to turn into a bunch of pessimists. But now, we regard many of our elected officials in the same way we do the villain of a political thriller: evil, devilishly evil. But smart.
"The Candidate" is part black comedy, part political drama, all stitched together by an endlessly scathing screenplay and a finely tuned performance from Robert Redford. It isn't so much an emotional film as it is a witty commentary regarding the election process, and how most candidates go from freshly idealistic to power hungry after a mere few months of campaigning. The film doesn't tap into our fears in the same way "All the President's Men" did, or how "Three Days of the Condor" told us not to trust anyone sitting in office. Rather, it serves as a thought-provoker that makes us wonder if the smiles governmental hopefuls put on display are actually genuine. It's a bleak, bleak, movie, not so much because it is starkly negative but because it prefers to think that getting elected is a popularity contest, not a case of may the best man win.
Redford plays Bill McKay, a 30-ish attorney who, on a whim, decides to run for Senate. Incumbent Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) is slated to win — McKay, you see, has been approached by political specialist Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle), who only wants McKay to act as a Democratic figure, not as serious competition. Jarmon, after all, cannot run unopposed. McKay knows he has little by way of chance, but, knowing he has the opportunity to spread his ideals around the state, does everything he can to potentially find success. And as the son of the former governor (Melvyn Douglas), with, not to mention, good looks that have captured much of the female vote, his possibilities may be stronger than Lucas could have ever imagined. Problem is, if McKay really wants to win, he'll have to, in some ways, trade many of his morals in favor of popularity.
"The Candidate" is filmed as if it were a documentary, following McKay around until his positive nature completely breaks down and sardonic ickiness takes over. As the film begins, he is a charismatic intellect who has a way with words (he is a lawyer, after all). But by the end, he can hardly control himself from laughing attacks when faced with the bullsh-t of a television promotion. The more he campaigns, the more he becomes disgusted with the idea of politics — the officials are snakes who know how to manipulate the public. Morals, he finds out, are of little importance to his peers. Sounding good, looking good, speaking well, being agreeable, going against the grain of the now-hated person he's trying to rob the job of — those are the things that matter. You can forget about making the country a better place.
Larner's Academy Award winning screenplay hits all the right notes — not mean but wicked, funny, but not overtly so. It isn't a comedy as much as it is a drama that realizes how ridiculous campaigning is, and it cackles along with McKay's increasing concerns. There is a great little scene that finds McKay in the back of a limo, reciting old lines from previous speeches. But after each sound bite he makes a sound of disgust, whether it be a gag, a cough, or a scoff. The sequence is subtle, yet it speaks volumes; have we gotten to a point in our election process where a particular quote, a particular fragment of a speech, matters more than the overall goal of a candidate?
The film also contains one of Redford's finest performances, capturing his distinctly everyman appeal while heightening the sly humor he can easily project just by uttering a single line. He is the kind of actor that can deliver a line like "We don't have sh-t in common" and still remain likable; he is the kind of actor that can look unfazed by the presence of a cameoing Natalie Wood and not seem like a complete jerk. In "The Candidate", we don't necessarily identify with him. Instead, we jump onto his back as he maneuvers through the jangling dishonesty of the election process.
Here is a movie more interested in saying something than showcasing how great its actors are, how great its direction is. "The Candidate" doesn't move you; it causes you to think. And as the race for the presidency continually heats up these days, it is compelling viewing that has hardly aged in what it has to say.
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