Candidate is an American film produced in 1972, starring Robert Redford and directed by Michael Ritchie. Peter Boyle plays Marvin Lucas, a political strategist. The protagonist and the political candidate the film's title refers to is Bill McCay, played by Redford. McCay's father John McCay is played by Melvyn Douglas. Other characters include Senator Crocker Jarmon, who is the incumbent Republican candidate that opposes Bill McCay in the election.
Marvin Lucas wants to unseat the popular Republican governor but has no clear strategy. He opts to run the son of a wealthy former governor, figuring that at least the public will be familiar with the McCay name and might sway a few voters. Ultimately, though, Lucas is resigned to losing the race for the Democrats. He coaches McCay on how to run the campaign, and is pleased with the candidate's good demeanor, good nature, and general likeability. Bill McCay is good-looking, and people respond positively to him on a personal level. When it comes to politics, though, the incumbent has the upper hand. Senator Jarmon is an old hat. He knows how to work the system and manipulate the public, which has become dumbed down by television sound byte versions of political campaigns and politics in general. The stock, shallow, superficial answers Senator Jarmon uses to field political questions only serve to shield the truth from the public.
At first, McCay does not take the election too seriously. He also believes that he will not win, because he is not a real politician. However, McCay is a thoughtful man who has a well-developed political philosophy. His father's experience and wisdom have also influenced him and inspired his ability to be a statesman. Therefore, McCay starts to take pride in the campaign. As he takes it more seriously, McCay also becomes more passionate about the real political issues that are at stake in the election. What started off as a game becomes something real and meaningful for both the candidate and the people he presumes to serve.
When a debate is finally called, McCay is about to play the game in the same way that Jarmon plays it: by giving shallow, superficial, stock answers to the questions. Lucas coached McCay to do the same, ostensibly because that's what the public expects. McCay delivers as promised, but his conscience kicks in and he does inject some serious political messages into his answers. Challenging the inertia that has swept over American politics, McCay wins the election not just because "he's cute," as his father puts it, but also because he proves that he is in touch with the issues that matter most to his constituents. Those issues include race, poverty, and structural inequities that the republican candidate ignores.
The film would have been as believable as it was, were it not for the 2000 Presidential election. Viewed in light of the Al Gore vs. George W. Bush campaign, The Candidate has a remarkable reverberation; its message remains relevant. Political campaigns are usually shallow affairs consisting of sound bytes that are easily digestible by a dumbed-down American public. Yet not all Americans are sheep. The Candidate proves that many Americans hunger for intelligent candidates who have something to say, and who hold strong opinions even when those opinions are unpopular. Americans do not always want to be lied to, either. The ironic ending of The Candidate is that Bill McCay must now move onto the process of governing. This is why the ending is ambiguous: "What are we going to do now?" suggests that McCay never actually thought this part through. The question is comical, but very serious, as it suggests that McCay might eventually succumb to the trappings of political power and become just like the candidate who he opposed.
The exact same situations described in The Candidate played themselves out in real life during the 2000 Presidential election. In the 2000 Presidential election, the son of a former politician runs for office largely as a fluke. He was ridiculed by many voters as being unfit for the job; but at the same time many Americans liked George W. Bush because he was a "regular guy." While not "cute" in the Robert Redford sense, George W. Bush had a sort of chimpanzee-type cuteness that endeared him with voters who found Gore stiff and condescending. Gore had eight years of Clinton success under his belt and felt the election was in the bag, as did most Democrat voters. Although not an incumbent like Senator Jarmon, Gore had the Clinton edge that was almost like being an incumbent. Taking a win for granted, many Democrats failed to come out to the polls. The campaign was poorly organized. A substantial number of voters were cynical and rejected the "politics as usual" represented by the shallow, superficial debates that take place on television. Voting for Ralph Nader, the cynical set of voters were looking for something fresh: they were looking for Bill McCay. What they got instead was George W. Bush.
Bush might have asked, "What next?" To his election strategists too. In Bush's case, election strategists wanted to place a regime in power whereby Carl Rove and Dick Cheney would run the country from behind the puppet of George W. Bush. Bush did not have to worry about "what's next," because other people made the decisions for him, doing all the dirty work. All Bush had to do was kiss babies and make speeches that revealed how bad his understanding of the English language really was.
Therefore, I appreciated The Candidate especially in light of the 2000 presidential election. The film reveals a disturbing aspect of American politics, but more than that, it suggests how frightening American culture can be. Politics is a game of wealth and power; that much is true and the film captures this in the way political strategists can orchestrate elections and even win them by surprise. However, the film also shows that the American populace often purchases what the politicians are willing to sell. If I could change one thing about the film, it would be to play up the stupidity of voters rather than place all the blame on the elites in power. The elites in power do manipulate the voters, but the filmmakers make it seem like voters are victims. Voters are only victims if they want to be, by remaining uneducated. The filmmakers do a great job of exposing the farce of American elections, but they do not offer a cynical vision of why and how the culture itself has been dumbed down.
Robert Redford is a skilled actor, easy on the eyes, who was perfectly cast for The Candidate. He looks like the guy next door, or who everyone wishes was the guy next door. It may be unfair to compare Bill McCay to George W. Bush only because it might be an insult to Redford. Redford's politics are a far cry from those of George W. Bush. Still, the analogy is striking.
When screenwriter Jeremy Larner created the character of Bill McKay, George W. Bush was an unknown. Larner was not modeling McKay on anyone in particular. Rather, the characters and situations in The Candidate are symbols. Redford is the star of the show, of course, and is highly believable. It sometimes seems as if the character was written for Redford because of the way people react to Bill McCay in the film. Just as McCay is charismatic, confident, passionate, and good-looking, so too was Robert Redford in real life.
The supporting cast is equally as powerful on the big screen. Senior McCay is played by Melvyn Douglas, who supports his son from the sidelines. His support is tenuous, until Bill McCay suddenly comes into his own during the debate. It is clear that…