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.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS