Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) is a political player who has just seen his candidate for the Democratic nomination to Senator of California fail miserably, and is now on the lookout for a new man to orchestrate a campaign around. The fellow he chooses is a son of a former governor and crusading lawyer for the poor, Bill McKay (Robert Redford), but he is going to take no small amount of persuasion to stand, especially as the Republican senator, Crocker Jarman (Don Porter), is generally regarded as safe in his position. So Lucas offers McKay a proposal: if he stands, yes, he will lose, but he will get to bring up his favourite issues to the public eye...
The Candidate was scripted by Jeremy Larner, who was no stranger to the world of which he wrote having been a speech writer for the famously left wing Democrat Eugene J. McCarthy. However, Larner was not out to toe any party lines, he was set on highlighting the fact that no matter which side you were on, it was solely a matter of image and spin that ensured whether you would win political office. Additionally, it marked the start of a run of strong, acerbic films throughout the seventies from director Michael Ritchie, and was one of his finest.
Ritchie did not exactly aim for documentary style here, but he did try and make McKay's experiences as convincing as possible. Indeed, if you were at all optimistic about American politics before, you certainly won't be by the time this film has finished, and the campaign depicted here can easily be translated to those of politicians in other countries. The thirtysomething McKay is photogenic - after all, he's played by Robert Redford - and the film emphasises that his youth and good looks are his best asset, so that the voters are not so much listening to what he has to say about his pet projects, and more interested in him because he and his wife Nancy (Karen Carlson) are very dishy.
While McKay has the looks of a winner, Ritchie and Larner do their level best to undercut him at every turn. You could say they go overboard in doing so, with the would-be senator talking to an almost-empty hall at one stage, fighting against technical hitches while trying to make his speeches, and even being punched to the ground by a violent Republican voter. If the filmmakers are emphasising how demoralising the campaign trial is, then they couldn't have done a better job, and McKay is steadily beaten down, not only by his rival, but by circumstances conspiring against him.
Can he get his message across? Not really, because the most provocative statements he wishes to make about race, poverty, pollution and other liberal causes close to his way of thinking are toned down by his team in the journey from opinion to ensure that they are far from incendiary. The only time he goes off-script to really get his anger off his chest in a live television debate ends up with Jarman hotheadedly claiming McKay is calling for violent uprising, which he is not. Jarman may be smug, patronsing and deeply conservative, but McKay can't help but look inexperienced (at best) in comparison, which would be fine for the Democrat if, knowing he was going to lose, he could get his true beliefs aired but that is not what happens. The Candidate is superbly made, and may feature Redford's best performance, but its tone is so negative that even when it ends you are left with no faith in the system, and that can be dispiriting, not to mention wearying. Music by John Rubinstein.
American director, from television, whose films of the 1970s showed an interesting, sardonic take on America. After sour skiing drama Downhill Racer, he had an unhappy experience on the bizarre Prime Cut before a run of acclaimed movies: political satire The Candidate, the excellent Smile, coarse comedy The Bad News Bears, and another sporting comedy Semi-Tough.