2016 BlindSpot Series – “The Candidate” (1972)


What better way to fill my November Blindspot than by watching “The Candidate”. On the heels of one of the ugliest elections in American history, “The Candidate” is a light and frothy escape by comparison. To take that a little further, putting today’s election process next to the film’s depiction of a political campaign is like putting Quentin Tarantino next to Walt Disney.

Robert Redford co-produced and starred in this small-budgeted political dramedy from 1972. This was a significant film for Redford who by that time was already an established movie star. But “The Candidate” was one of several early Redford pictures that showed his appreciation for smaller independent films. This would eventually lead to the creation of the Sunset Institute and of course the Sundance Film Festival.


“The Candidate” follows the ins-and-outs of a California Senate race. Bill McKay (Robert Redford) is a community activist and son of former governor. He’s approached by Marvin Lucas (superbly played by Peter Boyle), a campaign strategist who needs a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. Lucas’s sales pitch is a bit unusual – run against popular Republican incumbent Crocker Jarmon (Tom Porter) with absolutely no chance of winning. The one positive for McKay – say whatever you want about the issues you want. The idealistic McKay agrees.

From there the movie explores the behind-closed-doors politics involved in such a campaign. As McKay message begins to gain traction with the public, the party pours more resources into his campaign and (of course) want more control over him. That ‘clash versus compromise’ dynamic is a big part of the story. Jeremy Larner’s Oscar-winning script scrambles through the many layers of a campaign with keen insight and a satirical edge.

Director Michael Ritchie along with cinematographers Victor Kemper and John Korty shoot portions of the film in a semi-documentarian style which was a unique decision. It’s effective in adding an authenticity to how it pictures the campaign trail. They also do a good job capturing the sense of chaos both in front of the big crowds and the behind the scenes.


“The Candidate” dives into the inner workings of a political campaign and portrays it as good as any film. The jostling and wrangling is shown in both a positive and negative light. Where the movie suffers is in its portrayal of Bill’s personal life, specifically with his wife Nancy (played by the lovely Karen Carlson). The script shortchanges their relationship and leaves a lot on the table. It hints at different conflicts but never explores them. Nancy has a good number of scenes but neither she or her relationship with Bill gets the attention it needs. It’s basically an afterthought and the plot-holes it leaves are noticeable.

Redford deserves a lot of credit. He has done a ton for independent cinema not only promoting it, but by making it a key part of his own filmography. At the time Redford was big enough to have focused strictly on attention-getting big studio pictures. “The Candidate” was far from that yet Redford made the movie he wanted to make. The result is a fine election film that excels when highlighting the campaign but falls a little short elsewhere.


3.5 stars

11 thoughts on “2016 BlindSpot Series – “The Candidate” (1972)

  1. Nice one. It’s eerie how Redford on that poster looks a little like a young Donald Trump. His skin is not as orange, of course.

    • LOL! It’s funny, I didn’t make that connection. Have you seen this one? There are several things I really like about it. It really does capture what I imagine an election would look like behind the scenes. But the storytelling has a few kinks.

      • Sadly I havent. It sits in the same pile with other Robert Redford/political dramas with great reputations that I am yet to see. The Manchurian Candidate and All the Presidents Men are other good examples.

      • I don’t think this one measures up with the other two you mentioned particularly All the President’s Men but you should give it a look.

  2. Hi, Keith:

    Great critique!

    I caught this when it was first released in 1972. And it’s not a bad depiction of the hustle and bustle, phone calls from booths and cloistered phone banks for coordination and contribution.

    Redford holds up well. While Peter Boyle excels in keeping his candidate briefed and constantly on the move!

    All ending up with Redford’s win. And final line: “What do I do now?”

    • The last line was absolutely perfect. Love Boyle as well. I do think it’s hurt by its handling of his relationship with his wife. It is so undercooked and underserved. They open up at several doors in the story but never walk through them (if that makes any sense).

      • Good catch on “the open doors’, Keith.

        Could have been sloppy writing cut short. Possible plot extensions. Or the seed of future scandals.

        And wives are given incredibly short shrift in political films. Unless the character herself is the focus of, or pushes an agenda.

        More’s the pity.

  3. I haven’t seen this one in a while, not since I saw it for the first time in my high school government class. I saw Redford’s iconic final line referenced a lot on twitter after Trump’s win and the parallels of a “joke” candidate and unexpected win are obvious. I’ve been meaning to revisit it, but after the election it feels a bit too real lol. Nice choice for a blindspot!

    • Thanks. I enjoyed it and the surprise candidate and outcome definitely mirror what we have seen here. It’s kinda hard not to think about that, right?

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