The Candidate (1972)    2 Stars

“Too Handsome. Too Young. Too Liberal. Doesn’t have a chance. He’s PERFECT!”


The Candidate (1972)
The Candidate (1972)

Director: Michael Ritchie

Cast: Robert Redford, Peter Boyle, Melvyn Douglas

Synopsis: Bill McKay is a candidate for the U.S. Senate from California. He has no hope of winning, so he is willing to tweak the establishment.

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The corruption of the idealistic politician through the acquisition of power was a story that had been told before, but probably never as realistically as in Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate.   Although the stakes are high in Ritchie’s movie – election to the US Senate – the details are low-key and the political seduction of Bill McKay depicted mostly as a series of arbitrary incidents rather than major revelations.   McKay (Robert Redford – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Three Days of the Condor) is one of those hip street-level lawyers engaged in a legal crusade on behalf of the working stiff – probably because his old man (Melvyn Douglas – Captains Courageous, The Tenant) is a retired Senator whose hands are still sticky from spending so long in the honey pot – so he takes some convincing when political advisor Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle – The Friends of Eddie Coyle) proposes that he runs for the Senate against  Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter), the incumbent who appears to be a cast-iron certainty for re-election.   Lucas’s clincher is a frank and disarming admittance: “You don’t have a chance, you can say what you want.”

And so McKay does.   At first, anyway.   Dismissed as irrelevant by Jarmon, McKay ventures out onto the streets to meet the people.   Virtually ignored by workers leaving a factory on his first outing, his refreshingly open and honest attitude slowly wins attention and over time the unthinkable slowly becomes possible – he might just have a chance of overtaking Jarmon in the polls.

The Candidate is the sort of film that wouldn’t get made by a major studio today – and probably wouldn’t have done back in 1972 had Redford not been attached.   Ritchie shot it in the style of a documentary, getting his camera in amongst the crowds.   People talk over the top of one another so that sometimes it’s difficult to understand what’s being said.   Natalie Wood and Barry Sullivan appear as themselves.   It all adds to the gritty, sometimes distasteful, realism, and Redford’s performance largely overcomes the drawback of his matinee idol looks.   Mackay’s naivety perhaps isn’t particularly convincing, but in a way that makes his creeping transformation into another cog in the political machine all the more persuasive.   Whether the fact is that politics corrupts the good, or that you need to be a certain kind of person to even consider becoming a politician in the first place is left up to the audience to decide.   But McKay’s final words make it clear that, somewhere along the line, it was the acquisition of power – and not the championing of the people – that became the primary goal.

(Reviewed 20th March 2015)

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