In life, we laugh because it's funny - and we laugh because it's true, and Michael Ritchie's biting and yet hilarious The Candidate, a direct parody of the American political election campaign system, is funny for the latter reason.
Young and handsome lawyer Bill McKay (Robert Redford), son of former legendary political machine stoker, Governor John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas) has aimed throughout his life to embody different ideals to his father. Bill is not tempted by the desires of power, and his somewhat naïve ideology lies in solely tackling problems at the local foundations. Soon however, Bill's life embarks upon a somewhat different journey when old friend Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) visits him. Lucas convinces Bill that he possesses all of the right qualities to tackle Senator Crocker Jarman (Don Porter) in the forthcoming senatorial election. Jarman, known for his rapier-tongued wit and formidable campaigning, is such a favourite to win the election that he has been branded unbeatable. Bill doesn't understand the point of competing with Jarman, but Lucas presents him with a guarantee he cannot refuse - He will lose. Lucas argues that as Jarman will surely win, Bill is allowed to mount any type of campaign he wishes and be entirely honest with the electorate, thus maintaining his integrity and identity without sacrificing any public respect when he loses the election. After pressure from his attractive hanger-on wife Nancy (Karen Carlson), Bill agrees to mount a challenge against Jarman. Soon, Bill's straight-talking policies start to make waves in the public and press, but how long can Bill resist the temptations of being on the brink of a powerful position, and doing what it takes to occupy it?
When The Candidate was released in 1972, it was praised by critics (the script even won an Oscar) but was held as a funny yet absurdly over-the-top parody of the political system. It's worrying that thirty years later the film even appears extremely prophetic, and yet slightly tame in comparison to the shenanigans of today's politicians. The Candidate is a harsh and yet sharply observed study into the (lack of) souls of important political figures, and the depths they stoop to in order to take hold of the top positions.
A number of factors contribute to make the film a deserved satirical classic. Firstly, the directing by Michael Ritchie (who had previously directed Redford in Downhill Racer) is straight-laced to the point that from the commencing of The Candidate, Ritchie sees a light at the end of the tunnel and spends the film's entire duration on a linear path towards that light. Ritchie clearly sees little point in any plot deviations, and the film works much more effectively because of it. Notice for example, the issue of marital affairs, which is reflected in both Bill and his wife Nancy. The film suggests that both are straying from their marriage, in particular Bill who seems to have an elusive woman constantly hanging in the shadows, and yet these suggestions are so underplayed by Ritchie that they are merely that - suggestions. A lesser director would have pandered to gratuitous sex scenes or at least bedroom scenes. Despite the film's brilliant wit, none of the characters are presented as hip by any means. Dialogue is frequently mumbled or mispronounced, and mistakes are often made. This is a clever touch by Ritchie, as he helps the film's boundaries between fictional entertainment and docudrama realism blur.
Not only did the film's screenwriter Jeremy Larner produce a fabulously parodying script that seems an on-the-nail observation of political campaign machinations, but also he was extremely qualified to do so. Larner was a key speechwriter for Senator Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign of 1968 in which he lost to Richard Nixon. If anything, this fact is alarming, as Larner's exaggerated script sequences clearly have origins at the very top of powerful US politics. Throughout The Candidate, Larner throws us political characters in situations that are hysterical in their blatant vote-winning attempts. Notice for instance, Crocker Jarman's outright insulting of Bill through the use of a TV commercial, or Bill's own father John (the brilliant Melvyn Douglas) jumping aboard Bill's campaign ship for his own ends when it appears that his son might actually make a dent. It might have seemed absurd at the time to a 1972 audience, but it's extremely close to reality now.
As Bill McKay, Redford seems almost ideal for the part. His golden boy do-gooder charm perfectly encapsulates Bill's character, and what is clever about Redford's performance is the gradual realisation that Bill is becoming hungrier for power as the film progresses, and this is merely reflected in his posture and facial stares. Peter Boyle is The Candidate's unsung hero, portraying political puppeteer Marvin Lucas as a calm, supportive yet extremely manipulative aide to Bill McKay. The late Natalie Wood even appears in a very brief cameo, and her dress sense suggests her to be struggling to relinquish the hippie aesthetic that came to fruition in the Woodstock era that had just been and gone.
Forget the fact that the film is thirty years old, The Candidate, like rival films such as Network and even The Truman Show, becomes more relevant the more years pass. It "shoots from the hip, and is hip when it shoots."
Academy Awards 1972
Best Original Screenplay - Jeremy Larner
Academy Award Nominations 1972
Best Sound Recording - Gene S. Cantamessa, Richard Portman
For such a classic film that is worthy of preservation, the Region 1 NTSC version is poor to say the least. Exhibiting extreme grain and frequent white speckles the print lacks definitive colour and shakes throughout. Also, the film is presented unmatted in 4:3. Unmatted films aren't as bad as they look, since they often possess more information than the widescreen version of the same film. Even so, Warner Brothers could surely have released an anamorphic matted version of this film without any extra effort.
Considering the sound mix received an Oscar nomination in 1972, Warner could have given a better effort to the DVD sound track than they have done. Granted, it was probably hard to remix the film's original mono soundtrack, but they could have at least remastered the existing track. Instead, sounds and dialogue are tinny and muffled, and lack a sense of decent clarity.
Menu: A silent, static menu incorporating a few promotional shots from the film.
Packaging: Yet again, the usual Warner Brothers snapper case, with an interesting cover shot and chapter listings restricted to the inner side of the cardboard casing.
Trailer: An interesting 1972 trailer that presents the film as an election campaign film without actually referring to the main points of the plot.
Cast & Crew: As cast and crew pages go, these are quite good, with brief yet detailed synopsis of the careers and filmographies of the major cast and crew, with photos.
Campaign Strategy: A text page with some production notes about why Redford chose to make The Candidate.
The Campaign Trail: Another brief text page explaining some small elements of the production.
Awards: A page explaining that the film won an Oscar for its script.
As relevant today as it ever was, The Candidate is marvellous in its simple yet effective digs at the absurd political system that elects key figures. The picture, sound and extras departments all leave much to be desired, but the film itself is still outstanding despite all of this. It's a pity that director Michael Ritchie wasted his initial directing promise, choosing the decade of the eighties to instead direct cinematic tripe such as Wildcats, The Golden Child and Fletch.