Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Candidate

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Candidate

In 1972, the year McGovern went down in defeat to Nixon, The Candidate took a realistic look at a more successful liberal candidate, and didn't particularly like what it saw. Then again, it's hard to say exactly...is The Candidate extremely subtle in its criticism or more ambivalent (and perhaps confused) about its hero and the political process than its reputation as a sharp satire allows? Bill McKay (Robert Redford), the scion of a slick 40s politician but himself a seemingly principled activist, is encouraged to run for the Senate from California. Bearded political guru Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) quickly jots something down on a matchbook and hands it to McKay, calling it his "guarantee." It says, "You lose!" and McKay is supposed to take this as a liberation: he can say whatever he wants in the course of the campaign, because the powerful Republican Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) is not going to be unseated.


Or is he? As it becomes increasingly clear that McKay could win, the young man is swept up in the political process and mired in a confusion and ambivalence about what he's doing. Is he a straight-talking idealistic liberal whose candor is refreshing to the public? Or are these merely sophisticated tools in the quest for power - is he selling out his ideals to become "the candidate"? McKay himself seems unsure and actually, in a weird way, the movie mirrors his own ambivalence, confusion, and lack of direction. It seems excited by the process in all its dirty glory, yet simultaneously tries to hold back in horror. And the narrative plays like the stringing together of various, almost unrelated incidents in the course of a campaign, which is both good and bad.

It's good because, as we hop from one scene to another, we share McKay's confusion and overwhelming sense of being thrown into a maelstrom. But it's bad because we aren't quite sure where the movie's going, or that it's any more certain of its trajectory or feelings about the trajectory than McKay himself. On the one hand, there is an excitement in the process and even as the movie tries to scorn the political advertising, debate techniques, and backroom deals that McKay engages in, it makes them intriguing and shows us how McKay is starting to relish this new power. On the other hand, other than the fresh face and liberal ideas (which are often little more than platitudes: "we subsidize airplanes, why not people?"), there's little sense of what McKay really brings to the table. The process may be thrilling, but McKay himself is a cipher, and he knows it.

I think the parallels between the film's ambivalence and McKay's would have worked more strongly if we felt we were seeing things from his perspective. Often we are, but the film takes little detours and Redford holds back. It eventually becomes clear, in an indirect way, that McKay is having an affair; since we're not privy to it ourselves we realize we are not getting complete access to the candidate. Redford adds to this impression with subtle expressions and gestures that indicate he's drawn to the idea of power for its own sake, even if he won't say so. Hence the movie's ambivalence seems to be its own, not the character's, with the result that The Candidate appears non-committal.

The one character whose intentions are clear is Lucas. He may have ideals which are served by victory, but it's clear that winning is primarily its own reward: he's addicted to the game of politics. His enthusiasm links him to contemporary political fiction, like "The West Wing," which views political idealism and hard-nosed pragmatism as essential bedfellows rather than mutually exclusive. In some ways, Lucas is the most attractive character: his enthusiasm gives the film a motor, and Boyle throws himself into the role, relishing all the power plays, temper tantrums, and playful manipulations that Lucas engages in along the way. And part of me suspects that the film secretly shares Lucas' almost boylike enthusiasm for the rough and tumble of the political process. It pretends to be offended by the politicking and compromising but there's so much more conviction and enthusiasm in its portrait of backdoor and TV-screen politics than in its portrayal of the good-hearted but dull nonprofit McKay initially operates. Sometimes the movie comes off like Chris Matthews trying to squeeze into Ralph Nader's suit.

Seen from today's perspective, certain themes in The Candidate are truer than ever, and anyone who's been listening to GOP talking points for the past month or so will realize Crocker Jarmon is still with us. It's interesting to compare Obama's rise with that of McKay: both have volunteer backgrounds, both are telegenic, both are accused of valuing style over substance, both have moderated their positions in the pursuit of power. But Obama seems more shrewd than McKay, and less ambivalent about the usefulness of playing the electoral game (then again, we only see the public Obama while the movie lets us see the private McKay). At any rate, it's difficult to imagine Obama pinning David Axelrod in a corner at an election-night victory party and pleading, almost plaintively (as McKay does in the film): "What do we do now?" Then again, as the movie reminds us, we never really know what goes on behind closed doors, do we?

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