This film presents a timely and aesthetically unified view of the contemporary political scene. Director Michael Ritchie has assembled an excellent cast and paced the story with all the frenzy and variety of the campaign trail. Scriptwriter Jeremy Larner (a former speech writer for Eugene McCarthy) has a keen sense for the dramatic and an incisive grasp of today's political complexities. Photographer John Korty has skillfully given the film a cinema verité feel that comes across with ease. And Robert Redford gives one of the best performances of his career.
Bill McKay (Robert Redford) is a young, handsome storefront lawyer in California who is approached by a shrewd politico (Peter Boyle) to run for Senator against an old-line Republican incumbent, Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter). Convinced that the "old politics" of rhetoric and back-slapping patronage is ripe for downfall, McKay takes on Boyle as his manager and enters the race. He is definitely the underdog. But Boyle hires Allen Garfield, media specialist and impresario of electioneering. They then conspire to make their candidate a winner by capitalizing on his "image." McKay's genuine concern for the underprivileged is manufactured into a cliché about "caring," and his vision of honest politics is marketed with the crass slogan: "McKay: The Better Way." Whether speaking at a fundraising dinner, making a factory-gate appearance or a speech before a special interest group, McKay is tracked by the electronic eye of the TV camera.
In a telling sequence, McKay, his manager, and staff meet with Garfield to survey some telespots. All the footage has been cut down to the essentials, which maximize McKay's assets and ignore his liabilities. The thrust of the scene mirrors the comments made by Robert Goodman, one of America's foremost political media men: "We want our candidate to be liked, that's the most important thing. It's much more important to know the man than to know his stand on an issue. That's where television is important it's so close and personal.
McKay suddenly finds himself a package of calibrated emotional and symbolic appeals. His ideals are blurred into liberal rhetoric as the campaign picks up momentum. Advisors tell him that he has to compromise in order to win the middle ground that sacred turf where the whole ballgame is decided.
The mercurial rush of success causes McKay to step back from himself and survey what he's become. In two very crucial incidents the candidate cracks up over his image: in a television studio, he is seized by an uncontrollable spasm of laughter that forces him to cancel the telespot; and in a car, rehearsing his speech, he mixes banalities and political promises in such a way that they all become absurdities.
Manifold vignettes convey the other pressures that weigh upon McKay: a girl who wants him to sign her bra; a black man who asks the candidate what he is going to do for his dog; a pretty female who offers herself to him as a sort of political groupie; a speech to a near-empty hall of disinterested listeners; a humorous incident when McKay and his manager seek out privacy in a hotel and are kicked out of the building's service elevator. Trying to live up to the image created by his TV technicians and public relations experts, McKay loses track of his private identity. He is erased behind the symbols connected with his campaign.
On the eve of his victory, as his wife talks of their move to Washington, D.C., the candidate is dazed, evacuated of his early idealism and political zeal. Stunned, he asks his manager, "What do we do now?"
The Candidatehits the bull's eye revealing the hollow center of a campaign manipulated by media mercenaries and political Machiavellis who value technique and victory over integrity and substantive moral issues. Can an idealistic candidate for any political office in our land emerge from such a system without losing his identity?
Some political movies are outdated as soon as they are released. This film reflects the present moral dilemma brought about by the role of television as a major force in politics. Its jolting glimpse of behind-the-scene political strategizing is enough to make it one of the best films you'll ever experience in this area.