Hollywood has rarely made a film on a political subject that is both socially accurate and respectful of human dignity. So it's no wonder that American audiences have come to expect superficial cynicism as the acceptable tone of "progressive" American filmmaking efforts; leave Tolstoy to the comp lit classroom, leave the values of foreign filmmakers as diverse as Godard, Pontecorvo, or Costa-Gavras to their one-shot or arthouse audiences.
The Candidate has been hailed as one of the few satisfying films made about American politics. And it is an incredibly accurate portrait of the campaign travails that any hopeful for the electoral big-time must go through. However, it is a film that lacks both heart and an intellectual center of gravity. Written and produced by what must be serious, talented people, it comes off dilettante-ish.
The main problem is simple: for a film constructed like a character study, it lacks a developed hero. Bill McKay, crusading San Diego lawyer son of an old-time machine-politics California governor, is chosen by Democratic organizers to run in a senatorial campaign conceded to the Republican incumbent, Crocker Jarmon, McKay stands for all the right issues--welfare, socialized medicine, ecology; Jarmon for all the wrong ones--law-and-order, budget-cutting, the rights of American individualists. (The filmmakers have not mentioned Vietnam in a vain attempt to reduce the chance of incipient outdatedness).
The main thematic line is straightforward: as McKay comes ever-closer to winning his prize, he must rely ever-more on TV and other mass media to win his audience, in the process becoming less of a statesman, but a potent show-biz vote-getter. However, whether director Michael Ritchie and screenwriter Jeremy Larner feel this process necessary, and McKay's actions morally justified, is unclear. In the context of easy ironies that the film develops, in which all men are power-hungry or venal on a solely personal level, it is foolish to invoke moral considerations at all: though I presume that the attitude the filmmakers wanted to express was "this is the way the system works, and if we want to change it from within, we will have to temper our idealism." (Pretty apt sentiments for today, coming from a pre-McGovern production). In effect, the film as it stands says: give the right personality-pushers an amiable fellow who thinks right but can hold his tongue, and they'll make a hero out of him. (Which is not at all the same thing, and not very likely).
For McKay never does believe in the American political system--he accepts the senatorial match as a joke, on the condition that he'll be able to speak his mind fully, and when he wins the California Democratic primary, and the nature of his campaign changes, we're never quite sure why he goes along with it.
There are still several subsidiary themes which are far more interesting than anything Hollywood's put out since All the King's Men. There is the recognition of California as a cultureless, bullshit-laden playground for politicos, with a populace easily persuaded by ballsy New York admen who have survived the urban social torments most Californians have tried to escape. There is the depiction of political groupies, limousine liberals, and union stumblebums, which have rarely been so strongly labeled by their proper names. There is, finally, the demonstration of the wizardry by which we can be sucked in emotionally through mechanical manipulation of words and images--a virtual child's garden of McGuinness.
Apart from its serious pretensions, the film is consistently entertaining. Larner's dialogue is deadly accurate: it takes a sharp ear to pick up the proper colloquial uses of such Yiddishism as "schmuck" and "kischkes"; to imitate to perfection varying political jargons, from Jarmon's "the individuals made this country great" to McKay's "we're all in this (mess) together"; to invent speech idiosyncrasies which seal characters' fates for us, like a noxious emcee's "unequivocably."
The acting is also topnotch. Robert Redford's McKay is a perfect seemingly sexless but actually hungry, American idealist; MeIvyn Douglas is fine as his corrupt father; Don Porter, veteran of fatherly roles in TV sitcoms, is well-cast as Crocker Jarmon--rhetorically smooth, with the sincerity of a born exhibitionist and a rockribbed physical facade. But Peter Boyle steals the show as Marvin Lucas, McKay's mysterious New York-based campaign manager. Lucas is tough, and smart, and flexible, a Madison Avenue superman; but in his own oily way we feel he cares more seriously than anyone else in the drama about the election's outcome--and he alone almost raises the level of the picture to tragicomedy.
Michael Ritchie's direction is virtuosic, but cold for my taste, and given to too many cheap Kubrickian effects. The people in his crowds are apt to be repulsive, the workers in his campaign hallways too obviously on the make. His camera movements are both straightforward and slickly calculated.
Then again, much of the slickness comes from California itself.
In sum, The Candidate is not about the Kennedys, though their resonances are present; nor McCarthy, though whole incidents are openly borrowed from Larner's own campaign experiences; nor about McGovern, though George's campaign seems to have followed the same route as Bill McKay's. Finally, the film's central figure is nowhere as serious as any of these men, and the film fails to engage us importantly because of this