Last night I watched the political satire/comedy film The Candidate, directed by Michael Ritchie, and starring Robert Redford in one of his most memorable roles. I’ve seen this film many times over the years and I never get tired of it. Despite what one would expect from a political film that was very topical when it was made in 1972, it’s not dated at all. In fact, the brilliance of The Candidate is the utter timelessness of the truths it shows us about how politics really works. I thought about that a lot while I was watching it, especially now in the midst of this political season (spring 2016), which is the middle act of a very long, abusive slog through what we may ultimately remember as one of the most important elections in recent American history. For that reason, I thought doing a post on The Candidate was very timely.

The film starts with Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle), a professional political operative, who’s coming out of a recent off-year election loss and is searching for a new client. He goes to southern California to interview Bill McKay (Robert Redford), a young, handsome, idealistic liberal who is involved in a lot of community, legal aid and reform movements. McKay also happens to be the son of the now-retired governor of California, who evidently gained office decades ago through old-fashioned political machines. Although California’s current Senator, the curmudgeonly Republican Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) is the comfortable incumbent running for his third term and seems unbeatable, Lucas persuades McKay to run for precisely that reason: because he can’t win he can “tell the truth” to the people and run on his liberal principles, untainted by political reality. Of course that’s not what happens. Over the course of the campaign the initially naive, idealistic McKay morphs into a typical politician, mouthing mushy sound-bites and relying on emotional appeals and party endorsements to gain votes. (Spoiler) To everyone’s surprise, McKay narrowly defeats Jarmon, and then, utterly dumbstruck by his victory, asks Lucas, “What the hell do I do now?”

Especially if you’re cynical about politics–and who isn’t these days?–it’s easy to oversimplify The Candidate‘s message. It’s not just, “Everybody gets corrupted” (one of the closing lines from another great 1970s film, Woody Allen’s Manhattan, but that’s another blog). It’s also not just “politics is dirty.” Sure it is. We all know that. The Candidate‘s message is not relentlessly negative. In the film Bill McKay is a genuinely idealistic, likable and compassionate man. Robert Redford’s top-notch performance makes us, the audience, really want him to win. In real life a man like this, once elected to the Senate, probably would accomplish some great progressive things. In the film McKay talks about environmental issues, health care, education and racial equality. All of those remain relevant today. Even in the film’s cynical political context, these issues do matter to voters. Jarmon, by contrast, is seen dispensing patriotic bromides and deriding what he sees as liberal weakness, especially welfare. McKay wins, and thus his message must resonate with somebody. As ugly and ridiculous as politics seems to be almost all the time, there are people who accomplish great things in it, even if they have to descend into the political trenches to get there.

But I think the question The Candidate asks of us is, at what cost? One of the film’s most iconic scenes shows is McKay in the back of a limo, being driven to another political rally, where he repeats his stump speech as an incomprehensible mishmash of clichés. The nonsensical sentences he utters are filled with the same idealistic words he spoke, with genuine conviction, at the beginning of the film. Naturally most of the twists and turns in the plot deal with political marketing–polls, press appearances, debates, and sound bites. This is Lucas’s business and he does it well. Presumably a good politician could draw a bright line between the marketing aspects of politics, and what he or she really believes and wants to accomplish. The problem with Bill McKay in The Candidate is that this line appears to be disappearing for him. The movie hints that he has an affair with an attractive groupie, and also that he begins to crave the adoration and attention running for office gives him. Is he fatally flawed as a man because of this? Clearly not, but he’s awfully human. The personal and moral temptations of politics seem more important to Ritchie and writer Jeremy Larner than a simple message that “politics is corrupt.”

The debate scene from The Candidate is a brilliantly-written (and well-directed) sequence that shows us what’s at stake in the film’s fictional election, and how politics compromises the issues.

I always wanted to see a sequel to The Candidate and I had a great idea for one. It’s eighteen years later, 1990, and McKay is running for his third term in the Senate–exactly the position in his career at which Crocker Jarmon was when McKay defeated him. McKay’s challenger is a young, progressive idealist who reminds him of himself 18 years before. Now McKay must come to terms, not so much with the challenger or the realities of politics–which in any event wouldn’t have changed much between 1972 and 1990–but with himself, his own beliefs and his own identity. This kind of rumination would cast an interesting light on the themes The Candidate wants us to think about. We routinely deride politicians as hopelessly compromised, cogs in a rotten system, but the reality is that it’s just not that simple. The strength of the film The Candidate is that it has the courage to tell us that the world is complicated, politically and morally. I wish more real politicians in the real world had the courage to admit that to us.

The poster for The Candidate is copyright (C) 1972 by Warner Brothers Pictures. I believe my inclusion of it here is permissible under the fair use doctrine of applicable copyright laws.