Netflix is a terrific web site for proving that movies today just can’t hold a candle to movies of yesteryear. Case in point and a movie that definitely needs to be in your Netflix queue is The Candidate. This is the film directed by Michael Ritchie and starring Robert Redford as a leftist attorney in the RFK mold who has turned his back on his family’s history in politics to focus on actually helping poor people fight The Man; and by The Man, of course I mean Whitey. Bill McKay was raised in an atmosphere of dynastic political machinery and has asserted in no uncertain terms that he is O-U-T out.
He is out until a stranger named Lucas-played by the late great Peter Boyle-enters his life. Lucas is a political operative, a roving campaign manager in the mold of James Carville with the surface decency that must surely exist somewhere on Karl Rove. Right? Somewhere? Bill McKay has taken up the mantle laid down by RFK before his untimely demise; McKay is a liberal idealist who seems to honestly believe he can change the world for the better at the grassroots level by fighting for the common man against the interests of big business. Netflix The Candidate and it’s like traveling to a fantasyland where kids entered law school not to make more money than God but to use the law against those for who it was written. Bill McKay has a fundamental distaste for the machinery of politics built by being afforded a front row center seat courtesy of having a father who was Governor of California. If you detect a certain similarity between Bill McKay and one Jerry Brown, you, sir, are on the trolley.
Still, Lucas is able to convince Bill McKay to launch a campaign against the sitting senior Senator from California, Crocker Jarmon, a man who comes not from the Kennedy side of idealistic politics but rather from the Nixon school of pragmatic politics. Crocker Jarmon loves people, and people love Crocker Jarmon, so much so that Lucas isn’t really there to win, but just to play the game, to raise some issues, to perhaps set the stage for Bill McKay as a rising political star of the future. But a funny thing happens on the way to the Senate. Bill McKay is not supposed to win, but he’s not supposed to be humiliated in a landslide loss either. When it appears that Bill McKay is headed for exactly that, this reinterpretation of Faust takes a significant left turn.
Bill McKay doesn’t want to get humiliated, either. And so the decision arises: how much of his principles is he willing to forego to avoid that political humiliation? And then, of course, comes the real turning point: Bill McKay not only isn’t going to lose in a landslide, but he just may win. If he was willing to sacrifice some of his principles to avoid losing big, how far will he go to win a close one? Robert Redford’s idealistic lawyers starts out in jeans, with messy hair and not acting much like a politician. By the end, he and Crocker Jarmon resemble each other a bit more than might make you or Bill McKay comfortable. The final scene of The Candidate is one of the most memorable scenes of any movie ever made. Sitting on a hotel bed after shortly after accomplishing the unthinkable-knocking off a Senatorial legend, Senator-elect Bill McKay looks up to Lucas and asks a question that, is it painfully obvious, few real politicians ever think to ask following their first win: “What do we do now?”
The Candidate is worthy of being sent straight to the top of your Netflix queue because it is far too smart to merely turn this into a morality play showing something as obvious as the fact that politics corrupts. Bill McKay has moved to looking a little close to Crocker Jarmon by the film’s end, but he is not quite there yet. The thematic centerpiece of The Candidate and the reason why you should Netflix it has to do with that last chilling question that Bill McKay poses to his campaign manager. It is a theme that is even more vital and essential today: Political handlers in America invest far too much time and effort trying to find the great white-or black-hope of the candidate who is, above everything else, electable. The Party machinery of both Democrats and Republicans are more interested in finding a candidate who can be elected; whether that candidate has any ability to actually carry out the duties involved is of secondary concern at best.
What may be the most interesting part of The Candidate is that Lucas never shows any belief that Bill McKay is capable of being a better Senator than Crocker Jarmon. In fact, he never even shows any indication that he cares whether McKay would be a better Senator. Equally fascinating is that The Candidate is the first American movie to suggest that voters are actually astute enough to understand that politics is really just a game. Go ahead and Netflix Mr. Smith Goes to Washington if you want to see a movie that is cynical about politicians but still believes in the system. The Candidate shows that voters even thirty-five years ago knew it was a sham; the campaigning of McKay carries hardly anything more substantive than the campaigning of Crocker Jarmon. What The Candidate is the first to bring out into the open is that voters are aware of the game, that they do know all that really matters is whether a candidate can get elected and not whether he can actually carry out his duties once elected.
Netflix has a tremendous number of political movies, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one nearly as timely-even thirtysomething years later-as The Candidate.