Here is a movie about a left wing community organizer, that takes up the cause of running for a U.S. Senate seat. He doesn’t really know what he is doing, he moves his public speeches and pronouncements to the center of the political spectrum, he abandons causes that he first stated were his reasons for running, and he gains ground by being effective as a public speaker. At one point a very telling incident occurs. He is on a plane with his political advisers, and he says, “You know what I’m going to do when this is all over?” and his main adviser responds, “Learn something about economics?” Ladies and Gentlemen, guess who is running the country. It might as well be Robert Redford’s character in this movie. There are some other eerie parallels in the film as well. Two years before Jerry Brown was elected Governor, this movie came out, featuring a activist lawyer, who is the son of a previous Democratic Governor, choosing to run for higher office without much idea of what he was getting into. I had heard at one point that this was a movie actually based on the political campaign of John Tunney, who was California’s Senator from 1971-1977. If true, the appearance of this film may have had something to do with his serving a single term.
Michael Richie, the director of this movie, used an interesting approach to get the footage he needed. He basically had the film crew run a campaign along with political operatives, that put Redford in scenes with real people at rally’s and speaking events. There is a sequence at the Democratic State Convention (it must have been 1971), where prominent political figures of the day were featured. They appear as background in the movie, making them the most exclusive set of unpaid extras ever. I don’t know how they got around union rules on this but it added an aura of authenticity to the film. Peter Boyle plays the political adviser who is really just interested in a job and pulls Redford’s character into the race. The writer’s get away without having to deal with a primary fight on the Democratic side by portraying the incumbent Republican Senator, as a polished smooth political natural who has no chance of losing, so no one else was anxious to get into the campaign. If you listen to the Republican candidate early in the film, you hear many of the same themes that drive the Republican political, philosophy today. He is for personal responsibility instead of government paternalism, he opposes abortion on moral grounds, and he sounds like he is a fiscal conservative. In fact, it was hard for me to see what was so annoying to the makers of the film. There is one scene that seems to push Redford’s character into running. He goes to see the Senator at a campaign stop and the Senator after speaking to several well wishers and being surrounded by others, pretends to know Redford when he shakes his hand and asks if the Senator remembers him. Wow, what a phony, and this is Redford’s tipping point. Of course later in the film, candidate Redford has to do some of the same things, he blows off an odd guy at a walking tour in Watts, who keeps asking him what he thinks of the guys dog. Wow, what a phony, he smiles and looks away while someone else handles the oddball. Of course I don’t know that the film makers recognize the hypocrisy of their candidate.
This movie was released in 1972, during the Presidential election that I volunteered on for nearly nine months. I was a political junkie and this movie was like heroin to me. It gave me a high on the inside knowledge I was getting at the time from participating in the election and seeing the film. By the way I was fourteen at the time, I hated the politics of the movie candidate but I loved watching it all work. I know I went to see this movie at least twice that year. It is interesting that I saw it at the Garfield theater in Alhambra, because, two doors down from the theater was the election headquarters that I went to to volunteer. I did precinct canvasing, and made phone calls looking for support and then leads for others to call back on for donations. We painted posters for campaign rallies and went to several political presentations. The stuff that went on in “The Candidate” was several steps above my level, but it all made a lot of sense. The campaign ads in the movie look a little primitive by today’s standards, but you can watch them and see how the theme of the campaign was being honed.
The movie cheats on the resolution of the campaign. There is not much explanation of why Redford’s character suddenly turns on the electorate. He stops saying the things he means, and sells himself the way other candidates do. The collapse of the Republican incumbent is never really explained, and the subtle edge he loses in the one TV debate they have is really only likely to change the minds of people watching the movie, not real voters. There are some insightful looks into underhanded campaign techniques, for instance, to insure there is a crowd for a parade for the candidate in San Francisco, the campaign manages to have some cars break down and back up traffic so that the area will be packed. The candidate appears to have a casual fling with a supporter, it is hinted at in a pretty direct way, but no one ever discusses it and his wife is allowed to go on supporting him in her ignorance (John Edwards please step forward). The focus of the campaign becomes Change for “A Better Way” and a youthful Redford is cast against the image of the older Senator. The voters are shown but none ever articulates a reason that the newcomer is working for them. The candidate himself, mutters the usual liberal platitudes, they are presented well, but there is nothing compelling about any of the issues. In fact, his crime policy was created just to have a response in the debate on TV. He has to be told what it is. It is a little frighting to think that some sharp political operative could take a little know entity, turn him into a Senator, and then put him into a position where he could be President of the U.S. (Which is strongly hinted at by the playing of “Hail to the Chief” over the credits). Gee, I wonder why that is so scary?
Peter Boyle’s character seems like a template for the character of Toby Zeigler on”the West Wing”, right down to the beard and bald plate. The movie makes only one reference to fund raising, which seems like it misses a real chance to criticize the system. There are of course substantial differences in campaigns today compare to nearly forty years ago. News is not managed the same way, casual comments can become Youtube viral hits instantly, and nobody smokes in public places the way almost all of the background characters do in this show. Voters may be a little more sophisticated, but the issues are only slightly different. The one thing that has clearly not changed is the contempt that political figures on the left have for the average voter. They must be pandered to, turned against traditionally valid ways of living and trust that the smartest guy is better for them then the one who makes the most sense.