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The Candidate

Year: 1972
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Michael Ritchie
Writer: Jeremy Larner
Cast: Robert Redford, Peter Boyle

Robert Redford has always been political, but long before he played a knowing politics professor trying to shake a cynical student out of political apathy in Lions For Lambs, he played a guy who could have been that student in The Candidate.

As Bill McKay, Redford is a successful young California labour lawyer with no interest in politics. But he's nevertheless approached by campaign manager/political fixer Marvin (a very young Peter Boyle), who's come off a high profile loss and thinks he can make a winner out of McKay in a senatorial race.

McKay very reluctantly agrees, but there's a condition – he gets to say what he likes and not pander to the campaigning 'rules' that shackle incumbent Senator Jarman to be such a bay-kissing blowhard.

But the unexpected happens as the tide starts to turn and the polls go in McKay's favour, listening to the advisors and groomers a bit too much and becoming a bit too crafted and slick, a bit too easily led by the process instead of staying true to his plan to say what he thinks and damn the consequences.

I wasn't sure if the film was saying something about how even the most idealistic can be seduced by the image-making (he comes home to find his wife in the midst of a glamourous magazine photo shoot with all new furniture in their house) or the script just forgot to portray McKay the way it intended to, but he slowly turns from a rumpled rebel to a rabbit caught in headlights, forgetting his own internal script.

I like to think it was intended, because even though there's little humour in the film and it's all done with a very realistic, documentary-like style, it seems to be a broad satire about how people completely unqualified for leadership can end up in positions of outsized power. As McKay says to Marvin after the party poppers have banged, the streamers have been launched across the room and they have a rare moment alone as the media hordes and hangers on hunt them through the halls of a plush hotel; 'what do we do now?'

The story of how idiots, charlatans and the greedy can unexpectedly win elections based on the flimsiest of circumstantial charm or chance has been done before, but rarely with such subtlety. In fact it's so dry you might not even recognise it as a parody of politics until you've thought about it for awhile.

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