By Andrew Gregg
With Nov. 8 right around the corner, elections are very much on everyone’s mind, making “The Candidate,” a 1972 film satirizing elections, the perfect movie for understanding the current state of our political scene.
The film, which stars Robert Redford and Peter Boyle, opens with two Democratic campaign strategists looking for a challenger to Crocker Jarmon, a Republican senator running for reelection in California. They settle on McKay (Redford), who is a lawyer, and son of California’s former governor.
McKay isn’t expected to win, and he has no interest in running. Marvin Lucas (Boyle), his eventual campaign manager, presents the race to him as an opportunity to get his progressive message out, and McKay accepts.
McKay is a good looking, pro-choice environmentalist, who wants to fix what he believes to be a broken system. He also happens to be decades younger than Jarmon–a discrepancy which both sides attempt to use to their advantage.
Jarmon, portrayed as an old-fashioned-values republican, believes in personal responsibility, cutting welfare programs, and hard work as the answer to life’s difficulties. As the race between them heats up, McKay’s message cools down.
“The Candidate’s” brilliance is its documentary-style realism, and its matter-of-fact presentation of political pageantry. It doesn’t embellish reality, because it doesn’t have to.
“The politicians don’t talk, they make sound–it’s just noise,” McKay says early in the film. His skepticism with regard to the cheap, hollow rhetoric of politicians is perhaps more relevant than ever. Only 19 percent of Americans actually trust the government, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center poll. In other words, 81 percent of us have little to no faith in the politicians we elect.
“The Candidate” reveals the ultimate truth about elections: it’s not about issues, it’s about winning. In a winner-take-all system, politicians must appeal to the broadest swath of citizens possible, turning what is in theory the most important feature of representative democracy into a glorified beauty contest.
What McKay finds out is that in reality, focused idealism doesn’t win elections–turning yourself into a product for mass consumption does.
As he trades his detailed vision for a more generic message, his popularity increases. He ditches the impassioned pleas for banal slogans and cliches (“For a better way, Bill McKay”), and the people love him for it.
“The Candidate” is a nuanced and realistic take on the insincerity of American political campaigns, and it is a brilliant achievement–one that you absolutely should watch.
Its humor is matched by the seriousness of its message, and its message is surprisingly dark. It doesn’t serve up an optimistic, Disneyfied alternative to the grim reality: resistance is futile; everyone succumbs.
Early in the film, McKay speaks at a banquet and offers his take on the two visions animating the election–either the power will go to the people, or it will be lost to them. He would like to give the power to the people, but he offers a caveat: it’s the details that matter. Anybody can stand up and speak in platitudes, he says.
And everybody does, ultimately–including McKay.