Friday 8 November 2019

Movie Review: The Candidate (1972)

An inside look at an election campaign from humble beginnings to election night, The Candidate is immersed in the cacophony of creating energy and momentum at the cost of abandoned values.

Veteran campaign manager Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) goes looking for a Democratic candidate to challenge popular Republican incumbent Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) in the upcoming California election race for Senator. He settles on relative unknown Bill McKay (Robert Redford), an idealistic social activist and son of former governor John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas).

Bill is initially reluctant, and agrees to run only if he remains unfiltered and honest in all his communications. From initial stumbling outings at scarcely attended events, he gradually builds momentum, closing the gap in opinion polls. With his entourage of handlers growing McKay's message and image become much more polished, and he emerges as a credible threat to Jarmon as voting day approaches.

A political drama with a few touches of humour, The Candidate traces the build-up of one man's public image, from relative unknown to charismatic challenger. Early in his initially fledgling campaign Bill McKay delivers a speech to a large room filled with hundreds of empty cheap folding chairs and a couple of old geezers. With election day beckoning his candidacy catches fire, and he is continuously surrounded by supporters and oversized posters of his face, barely able to move without being mobbed.

This transformation is the subject of Jeremy Larner's script, and director Michael Ritchie adopts a high energy documentary style, cameras constantly on the move chasing McKay from event to event as he hones his message and grows comfortable in the spotlight. McKay and Lucas scale an undeniable high as they start to believe Jarmon can genuinely be defeated, and the mutual exchange of nourishing energy between the candidate and his growing army of supporters is palpable.

Along the way, McKay loses all that he started with. His stump message becomes repetitive, simplistic and utterly banal. He learns to deliver it with conviction and the crowds love it, but his promises are devoid of content and details. Externally he beams, waves and pretends to love the adulation. In private moments he knows he is selling out like every other politician, delivering what the masses think they want, not what they need.

Ritchie wedges his cameras into the hustle and bustle of makeshift strategy rooms and campaign stops, The Candidate a non-stop on-the-run sequence of jostling and jerkiness. The background noise and overlapping conversations are also incessant. Larner's script thrives on phones ringing, hordes banging on doors, hangers-on either shouting over or interrupting each other and engaging in their own sidebar conversations. It may all be admirably realistic, but eventually exhausting and marginally irritating as a cinematic experience.

With all the focus on event mechanics, The Candidate neglects to round out its central characters. Both McKay and Lucas are defined only by the trajectory of the election, with precious few moments for the men behind mission. Whenever McKay tries to find a quiet moment to think or hold a serious conversation the phone rings or a mob invades the room, a familiar case of political noise trumping any genuine reflection on policy.

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