Political drama has lately been undergoing something of a resurgence. The likes of The Ides of March, House of Cards US remake, Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln all broadly fit this category. But does this ‘trend’ hold any deep meaning? I rather suspect not. Knowing as we do, the sheer luck, misfortune, genius, cunning, stupidity and outright eccentricity involved in getting movies made, I should put it down to our old friend coincidence.
Of course many of the above adjectives could describe politicians themselves, surely at least the way the public view them. So it’s interesting then, to look at an earlier form of the political movie to see how things change. Or more to the point, how they don‘t.
The Candidate is a Robert Redford film you probably haven’t seen. A 1972 release, it nails many of the aspects of the campaign trail in a way that hadn’t really been done before. Redford plays Bill McKay, a young lawyer persuaded into running for the US Senate by a seasoned campaign manager, (Peter Boyle – great) provided he can say whatever he wants. He gets his wish, but soon finds himself having to soften his message and compromise his views to connect with the public.
The film’s strong suit actually lies in the campaign trail itself. Director Michael Ritchie throws the viewer into densely populated and chaotic campaign HQ’s and neatly serves up the stress and choking desperation entailed within the political game. The claustrophobia is palpable. Several set pieces impress with their ability to place the viewer in a candidate’s shoes. Excellent use of POV shots, handheld camera and sound design combine to show exactly what it feels like to lose a mall full of people. The scene also shows just how open and bracing an experience public speaking can be.
One scene which will stay with me for some time involves the both McKay and his rival Crocker Jarmon (played as a wonderfully oily old stager by Don Porter) attending a forest fire in California, where they are contesting the senate seat. McKay arrives first and answers token questions from the press, his team generally getting in the firemen’s way.
Then in flies Jarmon, all smiles and warm platitudes, looking for all the world the sorrowful granddad who warned us all this was going to happen, rather than someone who actually helped facilitate a natural disaster. And then off he swoops again, any threat to his campaign successfully neutralised. Never before had I seen the circus that is politics better captured on screen.
Opinion seems to be split on Redford’s performance. I’m a big fan. Seeing his desire for power grow subtly over time, watching him crack up after repeating his watered down message ad infinitum, McKay is endlessly fascinating. Hints of infidelity in his private life are exactly that; hints. That the director excises side-plots to focus on the main themes of the movie is hardly Redford’s fault (it is also a sensible decision on the director’s part). Within the confines of the script Redford give us a man selling out without even realising it.
With McKay’s amusingly facile TV spots and his rival Jarmon’s childish (literally) character assassination videos, The Candidate is a spot on recreation of the worst political excesses of it’s time. That these excesses have now become standard operating practice might leave one echoing McKay at the end of the movie:
“What do we do now?”