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Movie Review: 'The Candidate' Is Criminally Empty Political Theater

The release of 'Long Shot' prompted a look at another political comedy of the relative recent past.

With the release of the Seth Rogen-Charlize Theron political romantic comedy, Long Shot, the Everyone's a Critic Movie Review Podcast chose to look back at a relic of political comedy past, Robert Redford's The Candidate. In doing so, I did not expect to find that Long Shot, an ostensible stoner romantic comedy would demonstrate sharper political barbs than the 1972 film that is remembered mostly for sharp elbowed politics. That perception some have put forward over the years anyway. 

Every four years when the next Presidential race bubbles up to the front page, the back pages, where our art coverage subsists in an ever-dwindling space, some critic or think-piecer, dredges up Robert Redford’s 1972 political comedy(?) The Candidate, and opines about cynicism and Hollywood’s reflection of the political world. Never mind that the movie is about a California Senator, and not a Presidential candidate, The Candidate gets the column inches, because its very shapelessness allows the think-piecers the chance to project perspectives upon it.

The Candidate stars Robert Redford as liberal crusader Bill McKay. Bill may be the son of political royalty in his home state, his father, played by Melvyn Douglas, was Governor of California, but he hasn’t even registered to vote since coming of age in the mid-60’s. Bill appears content to fight the good fight in grubby courthouses, in the midst of the sweat stained masses begging for just a little bit of fairness that Bill’s legal privileges can provide.

Why run for Senate? For Bill, it appears to be a lark, at first. When political hack Marvin Lucas shows up to convince Bill that his famous last name is enough to get him through the primary, and into a one on one with a right wing reactionary, lifetime Senator named, not so subtly, Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter), Bill only accepts the idea after Marvin assures him he will lose, but he could at least shoot from the hip, and say what he wants on a very big stage.

And we are off to the races with Bill’s liberal politics kind of ruffling feathers here and there, but the candidate himself never proves to be much of anything special. I came to The Candidate believing, based on years of biased think-pieces and manipulative takes from all sides of the political spectrum, that The Candidate was a cynical, comic take on the lost soul of politics. What I came away with from watching The Candidate is a sense of emptiness that allows for people to pretend they understand what they’ve just watched.

The Candidate is the kind of shallow entertainment that lays wide open for many interpretations. Not having a perspective is the film’s perspective. Any viewer is allowed to project their ideals on to The Candidate. Liberals can find their handsome white knight speaking truth to power, and conservatives can find the empty suit, blow dried pretty boy that fits their narrative of the unsubstantial liberal opposition.

Director Michael Ritchie is a supremely average director as his post-The Candidate resume bears out. From here, Ritchie goes on to direct The Bad News Bears, Fletch, Wildcats and The Golden Child, mildly beloved relics that resemble the empty charm of The Candidate. They too are insubstantial. Ritchie directs the movie equivalent of cotton candy, a tasty bit of sugar that is quickly consumed, and easily forgotten.

Gertrude Stein once said of the city of Oakland, California, “There is no there, there.” That phrase has been quoted to death over the years, because it applies well to many contexts, and it applies perfectly to The Candidate. This is a movie of empty space, a vacuum of liberal posing with no spine. Even the brilliant Robert Redford comes off as listless when he isn’t bordering on bored silly. Redford rouses himself for a couple of good speeches, but to little affect.

I simply cannot understand the point that The Candidate is attempting to make, and I am not entirely sure the film has a point. I think the point is to make a movie so bland that any audience can adopt it, and no one can really complain about it. It’s so shapeless that it allows the audience to do the heavy lifting of projecting meaning on the emptiness of Redford and Ritchie’s textureless amalgam of liberal politics and failed satire of what it takes to get elected.

I kept waiting perhaps for the brilliant Peter Boyle, who at this point in his career was hitting home run after home run in roles like this one, to break out and become the driving force of the movie. After all, Redford appeared quite content to let the camera push him around from one scene to the next, why not have Boyle step in and captain the ship. I had assumed that his political hack was going to be the cynical engine of the movie and yet, he is as lethargic and plotless as Redford and the rest of The Candidate.

I hate that, if I were a more disingenuous critic, I could write a review of The Candidate for left or right of the political divide and be right either way. It would be easy to project a perspective onto The Candidate. The movie is so lazy, and lackadaisical that the criticisms that the movie levels against its own main character, regarding his lack of firm policy points and a squishy approach to identity politics, could easily double as criticisms of the movie itself.

The Candidate becomes an even more egregious crime of a political satire for when it arrived in theaters. The Candidate was released in the summer of 1972 as Richard Nixon was Watergate-ing his way back into office, and the American public were about to birth a new generation of apathetic, sarcastic cynics from the ashes of what Nixon wrought. It’s criminal for a political satire in the age of Nixon to play such an apparent ‘both sides’ narrative game.

1972, with Vietnam, Civil Rights, and gender politics on the rise, it is downright criminal to release a political movie that feels as if it could have been released at any point in American history, and have a similar non-impact. Making a movie about American politics in this timeframe, and not taking a true stand on important issues, not using that forum to make a serious or satirical point is cowardice of the highest order.

The Candidate is a cowardly bit of modest melodrama, masquerading as something vaguely important. Check out a much more in-depth conversation about The Candidate, and the new movie Long Shot on the next Everyone's a Critic Movie Review Podcast. Listen in on our fanpage at IHateCritics, or get the show on your favorite podcatcher, and be sure to leave a review on ITunes if you like what you hear. 

Sean Patrick
Sean Patrick

I have been a film critic for more than 17 years and worked professionally, as a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association for the past 6 years. My favorite movie of all time is The Big Lebowski because it always feels new. 

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