By Marc S. Sanders
A politician’s career isn’t being elected. A politician’s career is getting elected. Once it is all over, what does the politician do now?
I’m not sure I understand why Jeremy Larner’s script won the Oscar in 1972; only because I didn’t gather much from this Robert Redford star vehicle. What exactly was the point of what I was watching? Redford plays Bill McKay, an idealistic lawyer recruited to run for the California senate on a Democratic ticket.
He’s sure to lose and I guess he’s okay with that because it’s acknowledged that way early on, and yet he just follows through with the campaign. He’s a kid compared to his seasoned Republican incumbent opponent. So he’s got that to deal with, and he’s remorsefully living in the unwanted shadow of his father, a former good ol’ boy governor. He also occasionally brushes past a girl that follows his campaign. Bill is happily married. Sounds like a good set up, right? Maybe it is. Yet I’m not sure any of this is the set up of the film. There is rarely any conversations in The Candidate. Hardly any dramatic pauses occur either. Nary a scene with his wife. The televised debate midway through is generic cliche really. One good moment occurs when the Republican candidate steps on Bill’s toes during a threatening brush fire. Now here’s some conflict. Now we’re cooking. Except…we’re not. The film returns to its established theme from earlier. For some reason in the last half of the film, it throws two or three punchlines at you, and…well, I guess it’s a comedy now.
The Candidate fills a majority of its two hours with McKay doing a lot of handshaking, baby holding, celebrity meets (Hi Natalie Wood!) and autograph signing. When that’s not happening, we are treated to repetitive close ups of members of his campaign and voters. I felt like I should have known these people. Did I fall asleep during their big introduction in the film, or were those scenes deleted from the finished product? Bill doesn’t say much except to make generic statements that no voter would ever disagree with. That’s okay, I guess, yet really it’s just boring. None of this packs any punch.
Larner was a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy in 1968, and Redford recruited him to write and tailor this script for him to produce and star, in response to his own dismay with the political climate at the time. Maybe The Candidate is supposed to be narrated in a documentarian sense but even if that’s the case, it fell short for me. Scenes here seem about as interesting as someone who unwraps a stick of gum and chews it.
Perhaps the Oscar was merited due to the political climate at the time. Redford’s character told audiences what they wanted to hear and magically Larner’s screenplay is now brilliant. If that’s the case, then I guess The Candidate is now dated. There’s no way this film outshines other political films like Wag The Dog, Primary Colors, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, or from what I hear Bulworth (never saw it).
The Candidate carries no drama, no comedy, no shock value. I’d say no message either, but the unexpected ending (unexpected only because I didn’t know the end scene was actually the end scene) finally told me something that I laboriously waited a long two hours for. The wait wasn’t worth it.