In honor of Election Day, the New York Times has been featuring for the last week a video “Critic’s Picks” from A.O. Scott on the subject of Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate (1972). “I don’t think there’s any movie that captures the chaos and intensity of Democratic politics quite as well,” Scott says, adding that The Candidate is “fun, smart, maybe a little bit cynical.” Which is sort of like saying that The Matrix is maybe a little bit unrealistic. This is not a distinction in degree but in kind; to view The Candidate as anything less than completely cynical is to miss the point of the film entirely.
The Candidate stars Robert Redford (at the peak of his golden boy beauty) as Bill McKay, the prodigal son of a former California governor who runs for the U.S. Senate. The character was modeled loosely on Jerry Brown and, as Scott notes, many handsome young candidates since (most memorably Dan Quayle) have modeled their careers on McKay. But in drawing a connection between Redford’s pol and “a certain other young, idealistic lawyer” who has just been elected our president, Scott appears not to understand that The Candidate—which ends with McKay’s victory—is not about the triumph of progressive values, but their slow and steady corruption.
Although Redford begins the film as a straight talking anti-candidate, as his poll numbers rise he listens to his consultants (Peter Boyle and Allen Garfield) who advise him to tailor his message increasingly to the silent majority on the right. While there is no Falstaff for McKay to betray, The Candidate is nevertheless a variation on Henry IV—the story of a callow scion who, seemingly overnight, chooses to accept his birthright. The fictional McKay may be a Democrat, but the path he takes to power more closely resembles that of our current commander-in-chief than the road taken by our president-elect.—Benjamin Strong