The Candidate (1972) is a film about the selection of and Senatorial campaign of an unknown candidate with no chance of winning the race against a well-known, long established incumbent, Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter). It takes a satirical look at the political process led by campaign manager, Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) and candidate Bill McKay (Robert Redford). The Oscar-winning screenplay written by Jeremy Larner is based on his experience as a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign and subsequent book, Nobody Knows.
McKay agrees to enter the race as a result of Lucas assuring him he can address any issues and say whatever he wants. McKay hits the campaign trail and tries to discuss issues he thinks should be important to Californians. Initially, his message falls on deaf ears and his speeches are often given to sparse crowds. In one scene, McKay is trying to deliver a speech and as the camera zooms out, we see three people scattered across an auditorium. McKay stops his speech and asks if there are any questions, any at all to a silent audience. As McKay closes the gap against Jarmon, his issues turn toward rhetoric. Ultimately, McKay wins the senatorial race and the film closes with McKay asking Lucas, “Marvin, what do we do now?”
In a year of a presidential campaign, The Candidate is as relevant today as it was in 1972, perhaps more so. McKay starts out with a vision of how California can become a better state and its citizens realizing a better life. He talks about smog, pollution, and opportunities. Yet, as the possibility of winning becomes real, he’s forced to move away from his vision and toward sound bites that could appeal to a wider audience. There is a great scene in the film that highlights just how ridiculous the rhetoric has become. McKay is sitting in the backseat of a vehicle on his way to another campaign stop. He begins repeating bits of his speech he’s repeated at many events. He’s mocking himself and the ridiculousness of running for a political office.
In 2016, watching the Republican Presidential Debate is much like watching schoolboys fighting for control of King on the Hill and the Democratic Presidential Debate is about Davey versus Goliath. All of the rhetoric, accusations, and mud-slinging overshadows any substantive dialogue on important issues and undermines the integrity of America. The winner of the 2016 presidential race will likely have a question similar to McKay’s, “America, what do we do now?”
The Candidate is worth watching and in the current political environment, a film that takes us back to simpler campaign shenanigans and before American lost all confidence in politicians.