'The Candidate': THR's 1972 Review

The Candidate - H - 1972
Redford, who dominates the picture, has never been more assured or appealing.

On June 29, 1972, Warner Bros. hosted the world premiere of Robert Redford's political drama The Candidate at Sutton Theater in New York. The film went on to be nominated for two Oscars at the 45th Academy Awards, claiming a win for its screenplay. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below: 

Few films could be more neatly timed for the political convention season than Warner Bros.' The Candidate, a Redford-Ritchie production starring Robert Redford as a liberal aspirant to the U.S. Senate, and with Michael Ritchie in the director's chair. The two had teamed before, of course, on the successful Downhill Racer. Here, with notably more in terms of production values, story content, and sheer scope, the outlook is even more promising. 

For one thing, Redford, who dominates the picture, has never been more assured or appealing. As Bill McKay, an idealistic lawyer tapped by the Democrats to battle the incumbent conservative, he conveys all the doubts, all the self-deceptions and, ultimately, all the cynicism of a man who knows he has sold out for something he isn't sure he really wants. What makes his position even less tenable is the fact that years ago he had rejected his father, a former California governor, because he hated the deals and compromises of his political life. 

Nevertheless, prodded by an astute grass-roots wheeler-dealer, Bill agrees to enter the race — not to win, he tells himself, but to bring the vital issues of civil liberties and ecology before the voters. Before long, he is stumping the state, making his speeches before clumps of farmers, blacks in Watts, and hardhats at their construction sites. And before long, as he is all too aware it becomes the same speech — as carefully processed to avoid the issues as anything his silver-haired opponent might offer. (In fact, during one of Redford's platitudinous campaign ovations, Ritchie effectively underlines this point by sneaking in the campaign song of the opposition under his words.) 

The climax, as in most campaigns these days, is a television debate in which, as Bill notes bitterly, every major issue has been successfully avoided. Nevertheless, it wins him the support of his father, who still wields enough political strength to unite behind Bill the remaining dissidents and holdouts that will assure his victory. Fully conscious of his own compromises, Bill cynically asks of his campaign manager after the returns are in, "What do we do now?"

Obviously, this is a far cry from the days when Mr. Smith went to Washington, and idealism still paid off. It is also, in fact, a fair distance from Gore Vidal's The Best Man, in which the realpolitik was liberally tinctured with melodramatics. And that, incidentally, may be the weakest aspect of The Candidate. Not only is it not melodramatic; it has very little in terms of conventional drama. Its primary conflicts are not with external forces of good and evil, but the inner conflicts of a decent man torn between ambition and his innate sense of right and wrong. Essentially, it is a character study, fascinating and dynamic in its exposition of the political arena in which this character moves, but lacking the tensions that would normally arise from political skullduggery and backroom chicanery. 

Nevertheless, Victor J. Kemper's all-encompassing cameras (with a strong assist from Gene Callahan's notable production design) persuasively capture the swirl and mounting tempo of the campaign itself, and Jeremy Larner's script is taut and often brilliantly perceptive. Above all, though, what makes The Candidate work is Ritchie's uniformly perfect casting, and the performances he has obtained from his players. Peter Boyle, the hardhat from Joe, here turns 180 degrees to create another memorable portrait as the hard-working, quick-thinking, double-talking mastermind of Bill's campaign. Melvyn Douglas is flawless as the worldly, cynical ex-governor; but so is Don Porter's projection of the political hack who is Bill's opponent, especially in the moments when he abandons his TV image to reveal the petty, mean-spirited dog beneath the skin. 

If this candidate doesn't prove to be a winner, I'll demand a recount. — Arthur Knight, originally published on June 20, 1972. 

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