August 27, 2015

The Candidate

Robert Redford's irresistible good looks and cool magnetism have perhaps never been put to better use than in director Michael Ritchie's 1972 political satire The Candidate. Redford plays Bill McKay, a lawyer who grew up in the political limelight because of his dad, played by Melvyn Douglas, who was Governor of California. McKay's exposure to the compromises, the mendacity, and the phoniness of the American political theater turned him off years ago, and now he's trying to seek change on a small scale. But McKay unexpectedly throws his hat into an unwinnable race against a popular Republican incumbent when a desperate election manager assures McKay that he can say whatever he wants, since his opponent's victory is a lock.

The film shows us the complexity of the two-party system: how a man with ideals and the ability to speak directly to the public can be sucked into the system and slowly change in order to make himself more appealing. When you watch The Candidate in 2015, you might be watching a film made in the last year or so. The issues haven't changed--the environment and pollution are serious points of discussion in the film, not to mention race and poverty and unemployment--nor have the ways politicians gloss over them. 

Ritchie uses Redford's Western handsomeness in fascinating ways, sometimes giving us a close-up of the actor as he speaks at various events or sits in front of cameras for a televised debate. We see him pausing with effect, perhaps considering his next sentence with care, or maybe just letting the previous one sink in. Redford's use of silence, his difficult-to-interpret facial expressions (he's by turns appealing, appeasing, befuddled, disgusted, measured, and reflective), and his "I'm just a guy who's here to show up and get to work" attitude make him some kind of perfect political candidate. He's transfixing. You can almost forgive the movie's occasional bouts of sexism, depicting vapid-looking young women who say things like, "I voted for McKay because he's handsome!" 

The Candidate doesn't quite rise to the level of a Robert Altman-style film, yet its tone and its style feel reminiscent of Altman's work. Ritchie is perhaps too singular in his vision of what The Candidate is, and indeed, this singularity represents both an attribute and a flaw. We're immersed in a satire that doesn't really feel like a satire. Like HBO's terrifically dark and funny show Veep, it feels simply as though we were flies on the wall watching real life. And yet, there isn't the rich tapestry that an Altman film is so adept at creating. We get little from McKay's wife Nancy (Karen Carlson), for instance, and in her few short scenes, she shows promise, if her character gets to do anything at all.

Peter Boyle, as the good-naturedly calculating campaign manager, gives a fine performance, the kind of performance that generally doesn't get noticed because it's not as flashy as Redford's. But he's excellent in this film. He represents a man who's already been jaded by the system, and his attempts to "protect" McKay are the instincts of a man who no longer thinks on purely idealistic terms, a thought process that Redford's character continues to nurture even as it slips through his fingers.

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