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CANDIDATE, THE(director: Michael Ritchie; screenwriter: Jeremy Larner; cinematographers: John Korty/Victor Kemper; editors: Richard A. Harris/Robert Estrin; cast: Robert Redford (Bill McKay), Peter Boyle (Marvin Lucas), Melvyn Douglas (John J. McKay), Quinn K. Redeker (Jenkin), Don Porter (Senator Crocker Jarmon), Allen Garfield (Howard Klein), Karen Carlson (Nancy), Morgan Upton (Henderson), MichaelLerner (Corliss), Kenneth Tobey (Starkey); Runtime: 109; Warner Bros.; 1972)
“This Hollywood film has passed the test of time and is still a good watch, especially, during an election year.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An astute political film about an idealistic liberal lawyer concerned with community grass roots issues. Bill McKay (Robert Redford) is the son of the former legendary political machine-sponsored governor of California, John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas). Redford is talked into running for California senator against an incumbent Republican Reagan-like conservative, Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter). The film is so realistic, probably, because it was written bya Senator Eugene McCarthy speechwriter Jeremy Larner, who won an Oscar for his original screenplay. It is directed by Michael Ritchie (Downhill Racer), who does a good job keeping the film afloat with black humor and tension. It thankfully never sinks into melodrama because it stays with the campaign without padding on an unnecessary plot.

The only difficulty I had is that it is not easy to parody the political scene, which is already a parody of itself. But what the film successfully brings to the table, is it clearly shows how a candidate might start out sincere hoping that the power of the job would allow him to do the things he wants to do to make things better in society; yet, the candidate thinks he must compromise and play the political game in order to get elected. This intelligent film shows that better than any other political film I have seen thus far: it magnifies what the seduction of power can do to someone, even an idealist like the Redford character. The candidate, though compromised, still remains a somewhat ambiguous sympathetic figure, someone who still might be effective as a senator, even though he is flawed.

The film opens as there seems to be little hope for the Democrats to win in the senate race in California against an excellent campaigner and a veteran silver-tongued politician, the incumbent, Senator Jarmon. Therefore, Democrat campaign manager, Marvin Lucas (Boyle), decides to take a chance and get a fresh face with blue blood political credentials to run for office, the handsome and articulate Bill McKay. He gets Democrat media consultant Howard Klein (Garfield) to run the TV and ad campaign, who is one of those loud-mouth, opinionated, irksome individuals who always has to be busy doing something. When he is at his desk, he pounds his hammer on some walnuts while conducting business. McKay is a do-gooder, working out of a makeshift lawyer’s office defending environmental and local community issues, and is not interested at first in the senate office. But Lucas pushes the right buttons. He tells him he can say what he wants to and go where he wants to go, and by securing this powerful office he can be more influential in getting his political agenda across. In his understated sales pitch to Redford, Lucas writes on the cover of the matchbook that he hands him: You lose. Which supposedly means, for the moment, what do you have to lose, just be yourself, no one expects you to win. Nancy (Carlson), the candidate’s attractive wife, also, applies pressure on him as she encourages him to run, seeing herself in a more important light as the wife of a senator. Later the matchbook message will mean that he lost his soul, as Redford tries to be humorous in a droll way and says the message means the results are of the early returns.

Behind in the polls by 14 points, McKay’s campaign is preaching to the choir until he is told by Lucas that he must now reach out to other voters or else he will lose in a landslide. The change in McKay’s message is not without misgivings on his part, but what the film does well is keep the focus on the campaign. Soon, McKay’s ratings go up in the polls while drawing women voters to him because of his virile looks. He also energizes the apathetic electorate with basically the same tired political rhetoric his opponent is saying, but he has charisma and it somehow sounds fresh coming from his lips. During the TV debate Redford transposes his face on Jarmon’s and there is no distinction between the two of them, except he still suffers from the conflicts of his conscience and still thinks he can overcome the political scenario and do good on his promises. But this is shown as being rather dubious as his father’s old political ally, the labor leader Starkey (Tobey) promises to deliver the vote for him with the tacit understanding of the favors he expects if his candidate should become senator.

When Redford wins in an upset but is perceived as having sold out for the victory, talking in meaningless soundbites to appeal to the masses … his appreciative father comes up to him and offers him the left-handed compliment: “Son, you’re a politician.” Amidst the hysteria of the victory celebration of the party faithful, he asks Lucas with a confused expression on his kisser: “What do we do now…?”

In “The Candidate”, the Redford character has no one to blame but himself for his decisions. He was the one who sold himself out. It would be too easy to blame it on the system, which this film correctly doesn’t do. This Hollywood film has passed the test of time and is still a good watch, especially, during an election year. And, even though the times have changed from the 1970s, the political process still looks the same– if that is possible to believe.

REVIEWED ON 11/14/2000 GRADE: B+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”