In The Candidate, Robert Redford, plays underdog contestant Bill McKay in the California Senator race. He is recruited by a Democrat campaign manager Marvin Lucas, played by Peter Boyle, to take on the GOP incumbent. Since Redford is told he cannot possibly win, he is advised to say whatever he wants and to be ‘real.’
What unfolds is a fairly predictable story line of McKay’s ascent, but the real strength of the movie today is how it reveals 1970s election problems we are still dealing with more than 40 years later — from ineffective machines, low voter turnout and manufacturing consent with a polished centrist candidate. The movie comes at the beginning of the marketing/advertising era for presidential candidates — when future Fox News head Roger Ailes was polishing up president Richard Nixon for the masses. And in the film, a news commentator notes how presidential candidates are packaged and sold much like deodorant or other commodities.
All of the ‘behind the scenes’ action of the film, makes The Candidate an excellent source for understanding how marketing first entered the presidential campaign process. In the film, Redford, begins his campaign as an idealist but morphs into something much less than that by the end, as he is handled and advised by consultants who move him away from ‘saying whatever he wants,’ into a polished candidate who recites carefully worded answers while using the TV cameras to build his brand.
Although the movie predates president Ronald Reagan’s campaign by nearly a decade, it does follow the motif Ailes gave Reagan — ‘you win elections with themes, not policy.’ And as Redford’s character whittles down his somewhat raw, honest and long-winded answers to succinct, TV-friendly and theme-worthy responses, the public is handed a candidate that is no longer original.
The film is available on Amazon Prime.
Rated: 4 out of 5. The predictability of the story line is a little disappointing and mildly corny at times, but Redford and Boyle both deliver strong performances. The movie even offers a few quotable lines. For example, when Redford is ask his opinion on welfare, he responds, “we subsidized trains and planes, why not people.’