Man, talk about a movie that seems like it was made just for me that I wound up not liking at all. I’m a political science major (for those who aren’t familiar with my personal life) who suffers from what we’ll call… disillusionment with the modern political process. I still follow it fairly religiously, but every time a politician I admire lets me down, part of me dies, and it’s not a stretch of the imagination to say that my complete and total lack of faith in American politics is why I still haven’t graduated from college. It’s kind of ridiculous at this point considering my general stellar academic record when I actually participate in the process. So, a 1970s satire starring Robert Redford (The Way We Were) that chronicles an idealistic politician’s path to corruption and selling out seems like a perfect fit for my bleak worldview. Sadly, 1972’s The Candidate is a shallow and superficial affair that is also undeniably dull.
Anyone who’s seen the Chris Rock film Head of State should be familiar with the basic plot of the film; Head of State is mostly just a more upbeat and directly comedic version of this film starring an African-American (and it deals with a presidential election instead of a Senatorial one). Bill McKay (Robert Redford) is the overwhelmingly handsome and liberal son of a famous former governor of California. The Democratic party needs to field a candidate in the Senate election against the seemingly unbeatable incumbent Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter), and a sleazy party operative, Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle), picks Bill McKay as the sacrificial lamb because this untested and inexperienced pretty boy should have no chance of winning. But, Bill begins to resonate with the voters, and he slowly starts to relinquish the control he was promised over his campaign to party hacks in the hopes that he can win, and Bill begins to be just another political sell-out.
The premise of that film sounds spectacular. I was incredibly excited when I put this movie in my DVD player, and I thought my streak of watching excellent films in this blog was going to continue. It didn’t. The Candidate isn’t an inherently bad film. At times, its portrayal of the realistic tedium and day-to-day activities of a political campaign can be interesting. In fact, I’m not sure if many other films capture it as well, but that portraiture is rarely used for the sake of propelling a compelling plot forward. And, Bill is about as uninteresting a protagonist as you can imagine. Though the film’s intention was to have a weak, passive protagonist, that doesn’t make said weak, passive protagonist a strong anchor for an entire film. The Peter Boyle character was far more compelling, and just, in general, the things The Candidate has to say about political corruption seem stale and sadly dated.
Though Bill was a terribly boring character, Robert Redford did as much he possibly could with the bland “hero” he had to work with. Part of the film’s ability to work is that you have to believe Redford is charming and handsome enough to sway the state of California despite the fact he clearly doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about on the issues. And, since Robert Redford was one of the biggest sex symbols of the 1970s, he’s got the handsome part down. And with his boyish good looks and natural charm, he oozes the natural appeal that any politician would need. Although the best performances of the film were Peter Boyle as Marcus as well as Melvyn Douglas as Bill McKay’s father who smirks and laughs as he is fully aware of the path of self-corruption that his son is about to set himself on.
I’ll keep this review short because A) I watched this movie several days ago and B ) I just didn’t care that much for it. Even if like me, you consider yourself a political junkie, there are other movies that handle similar ground better. Hell, I’m sure that if I were to re-watch Head of State, I would find it to be a more enjoyable experience than sitting through The Candidate again. I respect what the movie was trying to say, and, perhaps, in 1972, its message might have resonated more, but the passage of time has robbed The Candidate of whatever power it may have had. If you are going to watch this film, come for Robert Redford and stay for Peter Boyle. Otherwise, find a different way to pass your time.
Final Score: B-