Two hallmarks of the political film genre are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and All the President’s Men. The latter starred The Candidate’s lead, Robert Redford. However, in this case, the candidate, Billy McKay, is perhaps a more tempered version of Jefferson Smith. He’s a young lawyer, good looking and passionate about justice and doing right by the people.
But this is not a film about a monumental struggle between good versus evil. There are no blatant moments of scandal or obvious skeletons lurking in the closets (although there’s the suggestion that McKay has a slight fling). Still, both men, both the Democrat and the Republican seem like generally amiable individuals — not venomous monsters. If you were with them around a dinner table, no matter your political bent, it would probably be easy to strike up a conversation. But both men, the incumbent, Crocker Jarmon, and the young challenger are playing this game called politics to win the state of California. There’s no doubt about it.
It’s fascinating that the film was actually penned by the real-life speechwriter of Senator Eugene J McCarthy, Jeremy Larner, so you get a sense that there is inherently some truth to the backroom conversations going on between campaign managers, newscasters, and the Senate hopeful. There’s an ethos being elicited and it helps that The Candidate gives off the aura of documentary more often than film.
But what we do see, is the progression of a man. McKay begins resolutely in his ambitions. He’s not at all a politician and he was not planning to become one until he is called upon by a veteran campaign manager. Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) thinks the lawyer has the pedigree (his father was a governor) and the genuine charm to win over votes. And finally, Bill agrees to it all as long as he gets to say what he wants. But as things continue to evolve, this beast that is the political machine begins to churn rather insidiously.
There’s not some dramatic moment of epiphany but there is a sense that McKay has started to allow himself to be sucked into this political popularity contest. His advisors are constantly setting up their next moves, putting together press junkets and public appearances to bring their candidate before the people. Meanwhile, his wife (Karen Carlson) is trying to support his cause and his famous father (Melvyn Douglas) eventually looks to get in on the publicity as well. And McKay is certainly candid and likable but he also soon learns what is expected of him. His answers become vague, he toes the line closer and ladles out the type of rhetoric the masses want to hear. The sad thing is that it’s this strategy which begins helping in the polls. Not astronomically but it’s a systematic shift giving him a good chance to win the contest.
But by election night, the votes are being cast, both sides are frantically preparing and Bill realizes he might be on the edge of a precipice he never foresaw. He’s being hoisted up as a champion of the people and yet he realizes he doesn’t want to be there but by this point, it’s too late. He can’t turn back. He can’t reimagine himself because he played the game already.
It’s hard to decipher where the film goes from here — what truly is next? His staff is happy. His wife is happy. His father is happy. Everyone else seems happy too. But the candidate is left to get whisked away by a mob — still wearing a glum face of bewilderment. In some ways, he’s a Jefferson Smith for the modern era. Duped by a system that he thought he could reform, only to find out he sold out. It’s somehow both comic and cynical — in a rather unnerving way — striking a tender nerve. Imagine if you have an election as volatile as the latest one. This film is no less true even over 40 years later. In some ways, everything still functions like a nefarious game. The question is, who is the joke really on?